This dissertation will make an attempt to understand Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus’ ‘Existential Dualism’
This dissertation will make an attempt to understand Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus’ ‘Existential Dualism’, ‘Individuality’ and ‘Meaning of existence’ by analysing their selected works of fiction. It is important to first understand the term Existentialism and trajectory of their ideas before delving into the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Existentialism is “a philosophical theory or approach which emphasises on the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will” (Oxford Dictionary). In other words, existentialism deals with the existence of an individual and believes that the individual is free and therefore, he must take the responsibility of his actions. But Existentialism is a vast philosophical movement and is difficult to be understood in a single sentence. It is a movement, which shows or portrays the tendency to emphasise freedom, freewill and free choices of an individual and most importantly the meaning to exist, as the stress is on ‘exist’ in the term existentialism.
In the mid-20th century, fictional and scholarly works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and other existentialists contributed in the development of the philosophy of Existentialism. In order to further understand existentialism, it is understood that the idea or philosophy of existentialism was developed in the 19th century and could be seen as the analogue of Romanticism. As both the movements basically focusses on the recognition of the life as a whole and try to reduce the complex ideas of life and its meaning according to the human beings in a more simplistic and intelligible way. But both the movements differ because Romanticism flourished before the horrors of 20th century whereas, Existentialism was flourished amidst the horror of massacre, slaughter, racial killings, etc. Therefore, Romanticism focusses on nature as a whole and human beings as a part of the wider picture, whereas, Existentialism majorly paints the sufferings and the difficult choices of human beings into the main canvas.
In layman’s language, Existentialism is divided amongst the Existential writers and existential philosophers and the existentialist philosophers are further divided into atheistic and religious philosophers. When we talk about the existential philosophers, the first name that comes is, Soren Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855), who is also known as the father of Existentialism. He is a neutral philosopher called as the anti-Christianity Christian. He was a Danish Philosopher, social critic, poet, theologian and religious author. He wrote many critical texts on Christendom, ethics, morality, Philosophy of Religion, organised religion and psychology, displaying his love for irony, metaphors and parables. His major philosophical works deals with the issues of how one live the life as a ‘single Individual’ highlighting the importance of his personal commitments and his choices and giving the priority to the reality over abstract thinking. He was against those critics who defined the idealist philosophers and intellectuals of his times and claimed that they were understood way too easily and quickly by the scholars. Many of Kierkegaard’s works were published under pseudonym, especially during early 19th century, so as to portray the viewpoints of the other rather than the author’s own, to give room to readers interpretation and their conversation with their inner self. The recurrent theme of his works and philosophy is the importance of ‘Subjectivity’, which emphasises on the people who relate themselves with the objective truth. In Kierkegaard’s book, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846), he states that, ‘Subjectivity is truth’ and ‘Truth is the subjectivity’, where subjectivity is referred to the inner self of an individual and objectivity is referred to the outside facts of the individual. He also gave the three stages of the way of life, which is the answer to his great question, ‘What ought I do?’ The first stage is ‘Aesthetic Stage’, where the individual quests for the intellectual and sensual pleasures, which leads him to boredom followed by suicide. The second stage is the ‘Ethical Stage’, which is better than the previous one. Here an individual begins to take the true direction and take the responsibility of good and evil and also align himself to the moral laws. The third and the final stage is the ‘Religious Stage’, which is intimately related to the ‘Ethical stage’. As the individual can be ethically serious without being religious but a religious individual is also ethical. In this stage an individual becomes more inclined towards God and to his commands, leaving behind the moral habits.
Sartre believes that individuals live in anguish throughout their life, not because they find life to be miserable but because individuals are ‘condemned to be free’. According to Sartre the circumstances and situations of the birth and the upbringing of an individual is not in his control, but the moment the individual becomes conscious and self-aware, he has to make choice and take decisions. The choices taken and decision made defines the essence of an individual. The base of Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism is, ‘existence precedes essence’, which means existing and acting in a certain way gives meaning to an individual’s life. He also believes that the essence of an individual is not fixed, it keeps on changing with time and situation. Living an absurd, undefined life with no purpose and meaning and accepting the absurdities of life are what Camus calls freedom. Whereas, lack of predefined meaning and purpose with absurd existence, which opens infinite choices to an individual, is what Sartre calls the ‘anguish of freedom’. Camus and Sartre believes that an individual must take his own decisions, make his own choices and act according to his own wish in order to define himself, his existence and create an essence, to become what he wants to, not what the society and people around him wants him to become. According to Sartre this freedom comes with responsibility, which a free individual has to bear on his shoulders and face the constant anguish.
The second most crucial philosopher after Soren Kierkegaard is Friedrich Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900), the atheist philosopher, who is seen as the root of the line of atheistic existentialism. He was a German philosopher, poet, cultural critic and philologist. He begun his career as a classic philologist and later turned to the philosophy. In 1869, at the early age of 24, he was the first youngest to hold the chair of philologist in the University of Basel. His work touched upon the philology, art, history, tragedy, science, culture and religion. Few prominent elements of his philosophy include Christian Morality, Critique of Truth in favour of Perspectivism, theory of master-slave morality, paradoxical presence of God and Nihilism. According to him, Existentialism emerges as the problem of thinking the paradoxical presence of God. He also gives rise to Nihilism, which in layman’s language is the rejection of all the moral and religious values. As he states that, ‘God is Dead’. Many believe that the individual suffer because there is lack of God’s direction in finding the purpose of an individual’s life, but the existentialists believe that an individual’s will power, right attitude and good understanding of life can still help an individual to find meaning and purpose in life.
Further, the religious existentialists include both the Jews, like Martin Buber and Christians like Paul Tillich, Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers and Karl Rahner. The other atheistic existentialists include Martin Heidegger (26 September 1889 – 26 May 1976), who was an atheist. He was a German philosopher and seminal thinker. He was considered as the most important, genuine and original philosopher of the 20th century. He is well known for his contributions to existentialism and to phenomenology. He is a prominent figure in developing the existential movement further in the 20th century, and also his first book, though unfinished, Being and Time (1927), is one of the most famous and important works of the 20th century. But he denied being labelled as an existentialist. He majorly focussed on Being and time. He in his famous work, Being and Time, tries to define Being i.e., Dasein, the Being-in-the-World. He believes that the meaning and purpose of an individual’s life is not fixed, it keeps on changing unlike the objective things in the world, but they all have some purpose to play if they exist in the world. According to Heidegger, moods play an important role in finding the meaning or purpose of an individual’s life, especially angst. As he believes that in the bright night of the nothingness of angst, when the being fears of slipping away from reality, when things become strange to him and he starts questioning, “Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?” (Being and Time. 1927) during that time he does not lose his identity rather he becomes the pure being-there. According to Heidegger, existence of an individual is not just seen through a single aspect rather through different activities whereas; Sartre gives more emphasis on the individual and the responsibility of his decisions, i.e., freedom. Heidegger’s main focus was to search for Being, and his distinction of being as Being and Dasien are the factors, which show his search for Being. Dasien is literally translated as ‘Being-there’ or ‘Being-in-the-world’, i.e., ‘man-in-the-world’. According to the philosophy of Heidegger, the existence of an individual is more associated with anxiety and despair, as the individual has to alienate himself from the society, and the world. Heidegger divides existence into three levels, first being the man, second, the world and the third, the things of use. According to Heidegger, moods play an important part because when an individual tries to alienate himself from the world, he feels anxiety and anxiety is a form of mood.. Anxiety is the fear of losing something, the fear of nothingness, i.e., when the things look strange and a sense of slipping away of things is felt. The things does not disappear in nothingness rather becomes little strange, which helps a person to recover the forgotten meaning of being.
Jean-Paul Sartre (21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980) is also an atheistic Existentialist. He was a French playwright, philosopher, political activist, literary critic, novelist and biographer. He was one of the prominent figures who contributed in the further development of the Existential philosophy and phenomenology. He was considered as one of the leading figures of the 20th century French Marxism and philosophy. His works influenced many, including, critical theories, literary studies, sociology and post-colonial theory. Sartre had very different view than the other philosophers and writers of his time. Sartre made major contribution in literature through literary biography and literary criticism. His works are very richly symbolic, specially his plays and novels which serve to convey his philosophy.
Sartre got highly influenced by Husserl and Heidegger when he first read their works while staying in Berlin. After studying their works, he developed an interest in analysing the multi-layered human existence and also that an individual has to realise the ultimate goal of his life, that he should achieve or work to achieve. As his major philosophical work Being and Nothingness, the Phenomenological Ontology is about human existence and not of some Ultimate Being. As Sartre was interested in exploring the reality of an individual through his personal experiences and the reactions, emotions and reactions and the variety of mental life of a human being.
Sartre also read Descartes’ Meditation on the First Philosophy, where his concept of mind-body dualism influenced him, and it became the starting point of his philosophy of existential dualism. But whether Sartre is a Cartesian Dualist or not is still a matter of confusion because he contradicts himself on many aspects. At first, he rejects the dualism of subject and object and later considers mind and body separately, as he states, “my body and consciousness are two distinct realities and my bodily organs are known to me in exactly the same way as other objects in the material world.” This shows that he confirms to the Cartesian theory, as he believes mind and body are two very distinct entities, as he states, “In fact they are radically distinct, and they exist on two incommunicable levels.”
Sartre in his philosophy, try to give two distinct dimensions. As in his early work, Being and Nothingness, he deals with the human freedom, freewill, authenticity, bad faith, etc., whereas, eventually in his later works like, Critique of Dialectical Reason, he goes on to deal with the social nature of the human being, where he expects the human beings to create their own history and while doing so they will create the history of mankind. But in both ways, be it human freedom or human nature, it is very important for an individual to know himself. Sartre’s most famous slogan though first given by Soren Kierkegaard but best explained by Sartre is, ‘existence precedes essence’, which serves as the core of Sartre’s philosophy and also employed as the major theme in most of his fictional works. This slogan best explains the existence of an individual, which came prior to the essence. It becomes easy for an individual to find meaning and purpose in his life, when he understands his existence. Existence is just being their in the world, being alive. As in Sartre’s novel Nausea, the protagonist is confused whether he exists or not and therefore is in turmoil throughout. But the moment he realises his existence and accepts the fate of his life, he finds the purpose and meaning in life. He believes that, a person first exists, then surges up in the World, and afterwards define himself. An individual is nothing but what he makes of himself, not as he is conceived but what he wills to be. “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” (Sartre, 1946: 23)
Essence is not restricted or idealised by the society by the set rules which an individual has to mandatorily follow but by what an individual wants to make out of his life, the meaning and the purpose of his life through his actions is essence and essence is not fixed, it keeps on changing. He also divides being into being-in-itself and being-for-itself, along with the danger of being-for-others. “The For-itself, in fact, is nothing but the pure nihilation of the In-itself; it is like a hole of being at the heart of Being.” (Sartre, 1943: 637)
Therefore, for Sartre, man is a pure existence, which is pure consciousness and it has no determinants. This pure being could be said as the Being-in-itself, where an individual is like a blank sheet of paper and he fills it with his actions. Locke says, Mind is Tabula Rasa, which means a blank slate, or black sheet of paper. Which means it does not have any qualities initially, which Sartre calls as nothingness, but this nothingness can be filled by meaning by individuals through finding a purpose or the ultimate goal in life. An individual can define himself from his own actions rather being judged or acting according to the wishes of the others. The person needs to break the chains of restrictions that others create over a person. As ‘Being-in-itself, has the consciousness of his being and not a proper outlined essence, but the things which have the essence but are not conscious of their existence are not the pure beings, they are being-for-itself. For Plato, essence is the Ideas, and the Ideas are very real and are beyond existence, time and change. According to Plato, existence is like the pale shadow of the essence.
The core of Sartre’s philosophy is carried through his one of the most famous slogans: “Man is condemned to be free” (Sartre, 1943). As he believes that all the systems made in the Universe are made by the human beings and also the history is created by them. As they are not ought to follow the history in a systematic order rather create one of their own. As man is free and to be free is to choose and to choose is to act and the actions of man make his essence. In the philosophy of Sartre, alienation, isolation, freedom, responsibility, alienation and consciousness are inseparable. According to Sartre an individual cannot be free if he is moving between the subjective or objective conditions, where subjective conditions are related to his psychological history and the objective conditions are related to the people around him or the people whom he is surrounded with. So for a man to be free, it is important for him to be alienated from the social as well as materialistic world. But an individual is afraid of taking up the responsibility of his actions, which make him fall in Bad Faith. One of the famous line of Sartre in his very well written play, No Exit, is “Hell is other people” (Sartre, 1944: Act 1, sc. 5). This clearly explains and points at the famous concept of Bad-Faith. In his writings, his major focus remains on being and nothingness. According to Sartre an individual lying to himself for the temporary relief from his sufferings and difficulties is Bad Faith. Sartre’s concepts of existentialism and freedom are so intrinsically interwoven and interconnected to each other that a single brick taken out from it would have the whole structure collapsed.
Albert Camus (7 November 1913 – 4 January 1960), a great thinker. He was an Algerian and French philosopher and writer. His works majorly deal with the existential themes, particularly, absurdity and meaninglessness of existence of an individual in an apparently brutal and absurd world. His main focus throughout his novels, philosophical works and plays, remain of the struggle of searching for the meaning of an individual’s life in all absurd circumstances, when the rational system of meaning is defeated. Camus though immensely contributed in the existential philosophy through his great works, does not consider himself as an existentialist, despite being classified as the