Existence Precedes Essence: The Revolutionary Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre


Philosobyte level 2: This article contains some fundamental principles. Simples.Imagine strolling through the bustling streets of Paris in the mid-20th century, the air filled with the scent of freshly brewed coffee and the sound of existential debate emanating from the cafés. Among the crowd, one figure stands out: Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher, playwright, novelist, and the unofficial spokesperson for existentialism. With his sharp gaze and even sharper mind, Sartre wasn’t just a man of letters; he was a revolutionary thinker who challenged our very notions of freedom, existence, and identity.

Sartre’s life was as fascinating as his work. Born in Paris in 1905, he was a prolific writer who delved into the complexities of human freedom, consciousness, and the societal constructs that shape our lives. His famous declaration that “existence precedes essence” flipped traditional philosophy on its head, suggesting that we first exist, encounter ourselves, and emerge into the world to define our essence. This was a game-changer. With a pen as his sword, Sartre fought against the existential angst of his era, advocating for a philosophy that embraced freedom, responsibility, and the power of choice. Despite his often sombre themes, there was a wit in his words, a light in his existential darkness, making the journey into his thoughts not just insightful but also unexpectedly invigorating.

Summary – Philosophies and Ideologies

Jean-Paul Sartre, colourisedSartre’s philosophical buffet is rich and varied, offering a feast of ideas that continue to resonate. Here are the key philosophies and ideologies that he served up:

  1. Existentialism: At the heart of Sartre’s philosophy is existentialism, which posits that existence precedes essence. This means individuals first exist, find themselves, and then define their purpose, contrasting sharply with the notion that essence or nature precedes existence.
  2. Freedom and Responsibility: Sartre believed in the absolute freedom of individuals to make choices and held that with this freedom comes immense responsibility. According to him, we are condemned to be free, for once thrown into the world, we are responsible for everything we do.
  3. Bad Faith (Mauvaise Foi): A central concept in Sartre’s thought is bad faith, the act of deceiving oneself to escape the anguish of freedom and responsibility. It represents a denial of one’s freedom and a flight from the truth of one’s situation.
  4. The Look (Le Regard): Sartre explored the idea of the Other and how the gaze of another person can objectify and limit one’s freedom, leading to a loss of subjectivity.
  5. Being-for-Others: This concept delves into the social dimension of our existence, highlighting how our self-concept is often shaped by our relationships with others.

Now, let’s take a closer dive into each of these philosophies, starting with existentialism, and unpack them in a way that makes Sartre not just a philosopher for the intellectuals but for every one of us trying to make sense of our existence.

Existentialism: The Core of Sartre’s Philosophy

At the very heart of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical exploration lies existentialism, a term that might conjure images of beret-clad individuals pondering life’s meaning over a cup of black coffee. However, to understand Sartre’s existentialism is to grasp a profoundly liberating concept that challenges us to take the reins of our own existence.

Existence Precedes Essence

The cornerstone of Sartre’s existentialism is the principle that “existence precedes essence.” This might sound a bit topsy-turvy at first, but let’s break it down. Traditional philosophy often suggested that everything (including humans) had an essence – a set of characteristics defining what it was meant to be – that preceded its existence. René Descartes, in his masterpiece, Discourse on Method (1637), coined the phrase “cogito, ergo sum”, (Latin: “I think, therefore I am”) and this had become the mainstay of philosophical thought for the previous few hundred years. Think of it as a blueprint existing before the building. Sartre, on the other hand, flipped this on its head for humans. He argued that we simply appear, exist, and then through living, interacting, and choosing, we define who we are. In essence (pun intended), we write our own blueprint as we go along.

Freedom and Anguish

This leads us to the liberating yet terrifying realm of freedom. If (and note the if) there’s no predefined essence guiding us, then we’re free to make of ourselves what we will. Sounds exhilarating, right? Yet, Sartre doesn’t shy away from the inherent anguish in this freedom. He famously declared, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” This is where the existential angst kicks in. Every choice is ours to make, and with each choice comes the weight of responsibility for our actions, the paths we take, and the ones we don’t.

Authenticity and Bad Faith

Living authentically, according to Sartre, means acknowledging this freedom and the responsibility that accompanies it. It’s about embracing the fact that we’re the authors of our lives, for better or worse. However, the temptation to flee from this freedom is strong. Sartre calls this escape “bad faith” (mauvaise foi) – lying to oneself to avoid the anxiety that freedom brings. It’s easier to conform to societal roles or blame circumstances than to acknowledge our role in shaping our destiny.

Implications for Everyday Life

So, how does Sartre’s existentialism translate to the nitty-gritty of daily living? It means living with eyes wide open to the choices before us, understanding the weight of our decisions, and recognising the power we have to shape our lives. It’s about facing the world with courage, making choices that reflect our authentic selves, and taking responsibility for those choices without hiding behind excuses.

Sartre’s existentialism isn’t just for the philosophers pondering in cafés; it’s a call to action for all of us. It’s an invitation to examine our lives, question our purposes, and dare to define our essence through the choices we make. Yes, it’s a journey fraught with anxiety and uncertainty, but it’s also one brimming with freedom, possibility, and the opportunity to craft a life that’s uniquely ours.

Next, we’ll delve into the complex dance of freedom and responsibility in Sartre’s philosophy and how this interplay defines our existence and shapes our engagement with the world around us.

Freedom and Responsibility: Sartre’s Ethical Framework

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential playbook, freedom isn’t just a philosophical concept to mull over; it’s the very stage on which the drama of life unfolds. And in this drama, responsibility plays the leading role. Let’s explore how Sartre intertwines these two concepts, creating an ethical framework that’s as challenging as it is empowering.

The Weight of Freedom

For Sartre, freedom is absolute. We’re free to choose our path, to define our essence, and to shape our destiny. This isn’t freedom in a light, breezy sense but a profound, often burdensome liberty that comes with a catch: we’re utterly and completely responsible for our choices. According to Sartre, every action we take reflects our choice, either to embrace our freedom or to flee from it.

This boundless freedom can be daunting. It’s like standing at the edge of a vast array of possibilities, each path spidering out into countless others, with the knowledge that the direction we choose is on us—and us alone. Sartre doesn’t sugar-coat this; he acknowledges the anguish that accompanies such freedom. It’s the price of rejecting bad faith and living authentically.

Responsibility: The Other Side of Freedom

With great freedom comes great responsibility—a sentiment Sartre might not have coined but certainly embodied. In his view, to act freely is to acknowledge the weight of responsibility for those actions. This responsibility extends beyond personal accountability to a social dimension. Our choices influence others, and thus, we’re responsible not just for ourselves but for the impact we have on the world.

This aspect of Sartre’s philosophy challenges us to consider the ethical implications of our freedom. It’s not enough to simply make choices; we must reflect on the consequences of these choices. Living authentically means recognising our interconnectedness and considering how our freedom affects the freedom of others.

Navigating Freedom and Responsibility

So, how do we navigate this delicate balance between freedom and responsibility in our daily lives? Sartre offers no easy answers, but he does provide a compass: authenticity. This involves making choices that are true to ourselves, acknowledging the reality of our situation, and taking responsibility for our actions and their ripple effects.

In practical terms, this might mean choosing a career path that aligns with our values, even when it’s not the easiest or most lucrative option. It could involve standing up for what we believe in, even when it’s unpopular or risky. Or it might simply mean living in a way that’s conscious of our impact on those around us and the broader world.

The Liberating Aspect of Sartre’s Ethical Framework

While Sartre’s intertwining of freedom and responsibility might seem daunting, there’s a liberating aspect to it as well. It empowers us to take control of our lives, to live deliberately and meaningfully. Yes, the responsibility can feel heavy, but it’s also what makes our choices—and our lives—genuinely ours.

In embracing Sartre’s ethical framework, we’re challenged to live more deeply, to engage with the world more fully, and to take ownership of our existence. It’s a call to action that’s as relevant today as it was in Sartre’s time, reminding us that the essence of our lives is not predetermined but something we continually create through our choices.

As we move on to explore Sartre’s concept of bad faith, we’ll delve deeper into the pitfalls of denying our freedom and the ways in which we can fall into self-deception, further illuminating the path towards authentic existence.

Bad Faith (Mauvaise Foi): Sartre’s Exploration of Self-Deception

Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of bad faith, or mauvaise foi, is a pivotal element in his existential framework, serving as a beacon for understanding human self-deception and the escape from freedom. Let’s unpack this intriguing notion and see how it applies to our quest for authenticity.

Understanding Bad Faith

Bad faith, in Sartre’s philosophy, occurs when individuals deny their own freedom and responsibility, thus deceiving themselves. It’s a form of self-deception where one refuses to acknowledge the truth of their situation and their inherent freedom to choose. Instead of embracing the often daunting freedom that defines our existence, individuals in bad faith hide behind societal roles, norms, or excuses, effectively relinquishing their autonomy and the burden of choice.

Imagine, for instance, someone staying in a career they despise because it’s what their family expects, or someone who refuses to pursue their dreams for fear of failure, rationalising their inaction with excuses about timing or resources. These are modern-day manifestations of bad faith: choosing the comfort of denial over the discomfort of freedom and its accompanying responsibility.

The Mechanisms of Bad Faith

Sartre identifies several mechanisms through which bad faith operates, one being the denial of freedom. This can take the form of fatalism, where one believes their path is predetermined, absolving themselves of responsibility for their choices and their life’s direction. Another mechanism is the objectification of oneself, adopting a fixed identity based on how others see us or how we fit into social roles, thereby denying our capacity for change and growth.

A classic example Sartre provides is that of a waiter too absorbed in his role, performing his duties with exaggerated eagerness, as if he were nothing more than his job. This waiter, in bad faith, denies his personal freedom by fully identifying with his role, ignoring the fact that he plays a part and that his essence is not fixed by his occupation.

The Escape from Bad Faith

Escaping bad faith involves acknowledging and embracing our freedom and the responsibility it entails. It means recognising that while our situation influences us, we always have the choice to interpret and respond to it differently. It’s about seeing ourselves as works in progress, capable of change, rather than static beings defined by our past choices or societal labels.

This doesn’t mean that living without bad faith is easy. The temptation to slip into self-deception is a constant battle, one that requires vigilance, honesty, and courage. It’s a commitment to living authentically, facing the uncertainty and anxiety that freedom brings, and making choices that reflect our true selves, not the selves we pretend to be or that others expect us to be.

Bad Faith in Contemporary Life

In today’s world, Sartre’s concept of bad faith is more relevant than ever. We’re bombarded with societal expectations, media images, and cultural narratives telling us who we should be, how we should act, and what we should value. The challenge is to sift through these influences, to question them, and to dare to define ourselves on our own terms.

Bad faith lurks in the shadows of our decisions, in the excuses we make, and the roles we cling to. But so too does the opportunity for authenticity, for a life lived in full recognition of our freedom and responsibility. Sartre’s exploration of bad faith invites us to reflect on our choices, to confront our self-deceptions, and to embark on the challenging yet rewarding path towards an authentic existence.

Next, we’ll turn our attention to the concept of “The Look” and how Sartre’s insights into the dynamics of seeing and being seen further complicate our understanding of freedom, self, and the other.

The Look (Le Regard): Sartre’s Insight into Being and Being Seen

Jean-Paul Sartre’s exploration of “The Look” (Le Regard) offers a profound and nuanced understanding of how we experience ourselves and others in the world. This concept, central to his existentialist and phenomenological inquiries, delves into the dynamics of seeing and being seen, revealing the profound impact these experiences have on our sense of self and freedom. Let’s peer into Sartre’s thoughts on Le Regard and uncover its implications on our everyday interactions and perceptions.

The Encounter with The Other’s Gaze

Sartre introduces the concept of The Look in his seminal work, Being and Nothingness, primarily through the famous example of someone peeping through a keyhole, fully absorbed in their voyeuristic activity. Suddenly, they hear footsteps. The awareness that they can be seen transforms their experience. They are no longer a pure subject observing the world; they become an object under someone else’s gaze. This shift, from being the seer to being seen, encapsulates the essence of The Look.

The Look, according to Sartre, is not merely about literal vision or being physically seen. It’s about the recognition of another consciousness, another freedom outside our own. This encounter with The Other’s gaze fundamentally alters our experience of ourselves. We become acutely aware of our objecthood, our being-for-others, alongside our subjectivity. This duality is a core aspect of the human condition as Sartre sees it.

Freedom and Objectification

One of the most unsettling insights from Sartre’s analysis of The Look is the way in which it can diminish our sense of freedom. When we become aware of being observed, our spontaneity can be replaced by self-consciousness, and our behavior may become more conforming to what we perceive the observer expects. In this sense, The Look can be a form of objectification, reducing us from a free, choosing being to an object among objects.

However, Sartre also hints at the possibility of mutual recognition and respect for freedom between individuals. While The Look can objectify, it also reminds us of the existence of others as free beings like ourselves. This recognition can lead to ethical relations where each acknowledges the other’s freedom.

The Look in Everyday Life

The implications of Sartre’s concept of The Look extend into various aspects of social life. It plays out in the dynamics of power, love, shame, and recognition. In the social media age, The Look takes on new dimensions, where the gaze is mediated through likes, comments, and shares, potentially amplifying the objectification Sartre described.

Moreover, The Look can inform our understanding of empathy and ethical responsibility. Recognizing the other as a subject, not merely an object of our gaze, can foster a deeper connection and respect for the otherness of others. It can challenge us to see beyond our projections and prejudices, acknowledging the complex subjectivity of those around us.

Navigating The Look

Navigating the complexities of The Look involves acknowledging the power dynamics inherent in being seen and seeing. It invites us to strive for authenticity in our interactions, recognizing our own subjectivity and that of others. This doesn’t mean withdrawing from the gaze of others but engaging with it in a way that respects both our freedom and theirs.

Sartre’s exploration of The Look offers a lens through which to examine our relationships and the ways we navigate social spaces. It challenges us to confront the discomfort of being seen, to embrace our objecthood without losing sight of our subjectivity, and to engage with others in a manner that honours mutual freedom.

In reflecting on The Look, we’re invited to consider not just how we see others, but how we allow ourselves to be seen, and the ethical dimensions of these interactions. As we move to discuss Sartre’s concept of Being-for-Others, we’ll delve deeper into the social and ethical ramifications of our interconnected existences.

Being-for-Others: Sartre’s Exploration of Social Existence

Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical inquiry extends into the realm of our social existence with his concept of Being-for-Others (être-pour-autrui). This idea is a critical piece of Sartre’s existential puzzle, exploring how our self-concept and identity are shaped in the crucible of social interactions. Let’s delve into this aspect of Sartre’s thought, unravelling how our existence is intertwined with the presence and perception of others.

The Foundation of Being-for-Others

Being-for-Others is rooted in Sartre’s examination of how individuals experience themselves through the lens of others’ perceptions and judgments. It is an existential condition where one’s sense of self is partially determined by their relationships and interactions with other people. According to Sartre, we find ourselves existing not only as beings-in-ourselves (être-en-soi) but also as beings-for-others, where our identity and worth can become entangled in how we are seen and recognized by others.

This duality can lead to a sense of alienation or objectification, as one becomes an object in the gaze of the Other. Yet, it also opens up a dimension of our existence that is inherently social and relational. Our actions, choices, and even our feelings of pride or shame are influenced by this relational aspect of our being.

The Interplay of Freedom and Recognition

Sartre’s exploration of Being-for-Others is not just an analysis of social dynamics; it’s a profound commentary on freedom and recognition. While the gaze of the Other can objectify and limit us, it also reflects our deep need for recognition and validation from others. This need can compel us to adopt roles or personas that conform to others’ expectations, potentially at the cost of our own authenticity.

However, Sartre also suggests that true freedom involves recognizing our entanglement with others and navigating this social dimension with authenticity. It’s about acknowledging the other as a free being like ourselves and striving for relationships that respect this mutual freedom. This does not mean a retreat into solipsism but an ethical engagement with others that acknowledges their subjectivity and our interconnectedness.

The Challenge of Authentic Social Existence

Being-for-Others poses a challenge: how to live authentically in a world where our self-concept is so deeply influenced by others. Sartre’s answer lies in embracing our freedom and responsibility, not only in defining ourselves but in our interactions with others. It involves a conscious effort to engage with others in a way that respects both our and their freedom, avoiding the pitfalls of objectification and bad faith.

This concept encourages us to reflect on our relationships, the roles we play, and how we allow others to shape our identity. It invites us to consider the ways in which we seek recognition and the extent to which this quest impacts our authenticity. By confronting these questions, we can strive towards a mode of being that balances our intrinsic need for social connection with our desire for authentic existence.

Being-for-Others in Contemporary Society

In today’s interconnected world, where social media often amplifies the desire for external validation, Sartre’s Being-for-Others is especially pertinent. It serves as a reminder of the importance of cultivating genuine relationships and communities that foster mutual respect and authenticity. It challenges us to navigate the digital age with a consciousness of how online interactions shape our sense of self and to seek connections that affirm our and others’ freedom.

As we conclude our exploration of Sartre’s key philosophical concepts, we’re left with a rich tapestry of ideas that challenge us to confront the depths of our freedom, the responsibilities it entails, and the complex dynamics of our social existence. Next, we’ll delve into the importance and wider significance of Sartre’s philosophy, examining its impact on contemporary thought, culture, and beyond.

Importance and Wider Significance of Sartre’s Philosophy

Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, with its profound insights into freedom, responsibility, and the nature of human existence, has left an indelible mark on various aspects of modern thought and culture. From the corridors of academia to the streets of global protests, Sartre’s ideas have permeated discussions about identity, ethics, and the very essence of what it means to be human. Let’s explore the importance and wider significance of Sartre’s philosophy, shedding light on its enduring impact and relevance.

Influencing Existential Thought and Beyond

Sartre’s existentialism provided a new lens through which to view the human condition, emphasising the centrality of individual choice and the inherent ambiguity of existence. This perspective was revolutionary, offering a counterpoint to deterministic and essentialist views of human nature. His assertion that “existence precedes essence” has not only become a foundational tenet of existential thought but has also influenced the development of postmodernism, which further questions the narratives and grand theories that claim to define reality and truth.

Ethics and Political Engagement

Sartre’s intertwining of freedom and responsibility introduced a compelling ethical framework that challenged individuals to take responsibility for their actions and their impact on the world. His active engagement in political matters, from the resistance against Nazism to the support of Algerian independence, exemplified his belief in the necessity of political engagement for intellectuals. Sartre’s philosophy thus serves as a call to action, urging individuals to use their freedom responsibly and to engage with the socio-political issues of their time.

Influence on Literature and the Arts

As a playwright and novelist, Sartre infused his literary works with existential themes, exploring the complexities of freedom, alienation, and identity. His plays, such as “No Exit” and “The Flies,” and novels like “Nausea,” not only brought existentialist ideas to a broader audience but also demonstrated the power of literature and the arts to reflect and shape philosophical discourse. Sartre’s impact on the arts extends beyond his own works, inspiring a generation of writers, filmmakers, and artists to grapple with existential questions in their creations.

Impact on Psychology and Psychoanalysis

Sartre’s exploration of consciousness, self-deception, and the dynamics of the self and the Other has also influenced the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis. His critiques of Freudian determinism and the exploration of existential psychoanalysis offered alternative ways of understanding the human psyche and the complexities of personal identity. By emphasising the role of choice and responsibility in shaping one’s life, Sartre’s philosophy invites a reconsideration of therapeutic practices and the potential for personal transformation.

Contemporary Relevance

In today’s globalised world, where questions of identity, freedom, and responsibility are more pressing than ever, Sartre’s philosophy remains profoundly relevant. His call for authenticity in an age of consumerism and his critique of bad faith resonate in a society often characterised by superficiality and escapism. Sartre’s emphasis on the necessity of engagement with the Other challenges us to navigate the complexities of multicultural societies and global interconnectedness with an ethical commitment to mutual recognition and respect.


Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, with its rich analysis of freedom, consciousness, and the social fabric of human existence, continues to inspire and challenge us. It prompts a reevaluation of our choices, our relationships, and our role in shaping the world. As we navigate the uncertainties and complexities of the 21st century, Sartre’s call to live authentically and to engage responsibly with the challenges of our time remains as relevant as ever, offering guidance and inspiration for those seeking to understand and improve the human condition.

Next, we’ll provide a reading list and online resources for those interested in delving deeper into the life and work of Jean-Paul Sartre, further exploring the depths of existentialism and its applications to contemporary life.

Reading list

To dive deeper into the world of Jean-Paul Sartre and explore his existentialist philosophy further, I’ve compiled a reading list that spans his most influential works, biographies, and critical analyses. These selections are designed to provide a comprehensive overview of Sartre’s thought, from his seminal philosophical texts to his fictional works that exemplify his ideas.

  1. “Sartre: A Philosophical Biography” by Thomas R. Flynn – This biography provides an extensive account of Sartre as a philosopher, mapping his intellectual development and exploring his existentialism, politics, ethics, and ontology​​.
  2. “The Cambridge Companion to Sartre” by Christina Howells – A comprehensive survey of Sartre’s philosophy, covering his writings on ontology, phenomenology, psychology, ethics, and aesthetics, as well as his work on history, commitment, and progress​​.
  3. “Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings” – A collection of Sartre’s key philosophical writings, offering an indispensable resource for students and readers of his work. It includes clear introductions to each reading, setting them in context​​.
  4. “Existentialism and Humanism” – Sartre’s famous lecture intended to clarify misconceptions about his philosophy. It centers on the idea of freedom and the doctrine that “existence precedes essence,” making it accessible to a general audience​​.
  5. “No Exit” – One of Sartre’s best-known plays, offering an existential portrayal of Hell alongside three other plays that delve into themes of freedom, identity, and social critique​​.
  6. “Nausea” – Sartre’s first novel and a key text of existentialist literature, telling the story of Antoine Roquentin who experiences a profound existential crisis​​.
  7. “Being and Nothingness” – Perhaps Sartre’s most important philosophical work, providing a radical account of the human condition that challenges pre-established notions of essence and existence​​.

Each of these works encapsulates different facets of Sartre’s thought, from his philosophical expositions to the literary expression of existentialist themes. Together, they offer a well-rounded understanding of his contributions to existentialism and 20th-century philosophy.

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Online resources:

For further exploration of Sartre’s life and philosophy, here are some online resources:

These resources serve as gateways to understanding the depth and breadth of Sartre’s existentialism, offering insights into his exploration of freedom, responsibility, and the human condition. Whether you’re new to Sartre or looking to deepen your understanding, these works are essential reading.


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1 thought on “Existence Precedes Essence: The Revolutionary Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre”

  1. As you can probably tell, I’m a huge fan of Jean-Paul Satre. His philosophies are entirely relevant today on so many levels. It’s hard to know where to start. I will certainly be looking at Satre in detail later !

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