Is Sartre’s idea that ‘existence precedes essence’ classist? -

By Alexandria Slater, based in Manchester, UK.

The global pandemic has stripped us of normality and taken the form of an unforgiving mirror, revealing the insecurities and doubts about existence that were previously concealed within society’s structures.

Familiarity is a distant memory of the past, and being imprisoned in isolation makes it difficult to resist spiralling into moments of existential dread. It should come as no surprise that existentialism has become a widely discussed topic on social media. But the ability to apply this particular philosophy to your personal life is a classist privilege that should be acknowledged.

Twentieth-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre condensed his theory on existentialism into three words — ‘existence precedes essence ‘. He :

‘Imagine a paper-cutter. For a paper-cutter, essence precedes existence because the idea and purpose of a paper-cutter must exist prior to a craftsman creating the paper-cutter.’

For Sartre, humans are the opposite of these created objects. Thus, individuals are condemned to freedom and must fulfil their purpose and potential outside of society’s expectations.

The classism creeps in with the belief that determinism — essentially the opposite of free will, in that everything in your life is predetermined — does not exist, and blaming external conditions for an unfulfilled life is merely an excuse, or as Sartre would put it, acting in ‘’.

This philosophy underpins the tone-deaf disconnect from reality that circulates social media. Timelines are flooded with well-intended but ignorant posts from influencers, advising people to simply ‘manifest their dreams’ and quit the job that makes them unhappy.

In reality, succumbing to the capitalist way of life is the only feasible option for many, regardless of the number of viral tweets that romanticise ‘leaving your 9 to 5 and buying a one-way ticket to X.’

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would have probably tweeted something similar if the internet existed during the early nineteenth century. Kierkegaard is noted as the earliest existentialist, as he came to bleakly believe that life under a capitalist system is nothing more than a checklist of milestones waiting to be ticked off.

‘When I got older, I opened my eyes and saw the real world…I saw that the meaning of life was to get a livelihood, the bright joy of love was to marry a well-off girl…that wisdom was what the majority said it was, that passion was to give a speech…that cordiality was to say ‘You’re welcome’ after a meal…and I laughed.’

This realisation triggered Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy which later influenced Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1940s.

Their views on existentialism differ in areas like religion. However, their mutually shared middle-class upbringing exposes the classist cracks in the philosophy’s foundation. Their privileged experiences will have influenced their beliefs, making it an inherently exclusive ideology.

Growing up, basic needs were never compromised for Kierkegaard or Sartre. They saw struggle through the lens of inevitable tragedies like death and global conflict. So yes, existentialism caters for understanding life’s dooming problems that cast despair onto everybody, but it fails to acknowledge the draining working-class struggles.

Kierkegaard’s affluent upbringing played a large role in his ability to pursue a successful career as a freelance writer. This is something that wouldn’t have been feasible for an individual of a lower class, not for lack of hard work or motivation, but because not everyone had a financial safety blanket to fall back onto if things didn’t work out. It’s no different today, the opportunity to pursue your dream career is a luxury only a few have.

Sartre addressed the inequality of life by applying the tenet of ‘authenticity’ — in a world with no meaning, there is no real order or justice, meaning individuals must then take full responsibility for the outcome of their actions. Thus, living a fully authentic life.

However, I argue that this is a closeted and unrealistic idea for everyone to attain. Take lockdown, a rare circumstance where the same rules and consequences apply to everyone regardless of economic status. Both Dominic Cummings and a working man from Wigan broke the restrictions, and you could say, exercised their right to freedom. So, Sartre would argue that these men were living a fully authentic life, whilst the rest of us adhering to the rules were living in bad faith.

However, the situation results in an unjust outcome — the powerful politician faces no consequences, yet the ordinary man is burdened with a fine. It’s explicitly clear that the difference, in consequence, is based entirely on economic capital rather than individual wrongdoing. Further, even if Cummings had been given a fine, for a person on a politician’s salary, the fine would have been less of a grievance than someone with a lower income. Using this example, it is clear that living Sartre’s idea of authenticity is delusory for the working class.

French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir also highlighted the misogynistic restrictions women face under a patriarchal society. She stated, ‘our [women’s] freedom is not absolute, but situated’, reinforcing the unjust reality that only white, wealthy men can live authentically.

Interestingly, Sartre labelled himself as a Marxist after witnessing the exploitation of proletariats during WWII. However, his support of Marxism seems slightly performative. He a class-led revolution and claimed that the ‘proletarian experience’ was a form of alienation, arguing that a revolution formed by all members of society would be more effective.

Sartre’s efforts to liberate the working class from capitalist powers are appreciated. However, his attempt to avoid being held accountable as a member of the oppressing class by envisioning himself on the morally good side of a revolution demerits his advocacy for Marxism. Personal views on injustice simply aren’t enough to make existentialism accessible. I would say that it’s the thought that counts, but in this case, it isn’t.

Despite its flaws, I am not at all opposed to existentialism. In fact, in its colloquial sense, I find existentialism reassuring when dealing with crashing waves of anxiety, such as wondering how my family and friends perceive me and whether I’m just tolerated.

Or minor things like the time I stuttered during an interview and the corner of the interviewer’s mouth twitched, which must have meant she was trying not to laugh because she obviously pitied my inability to speak…instances like that.

Acknowledging that we’re just specks of matter floating on a rock in a continually expanding universe therefore none of those things matter (no pun intended), provides me with perspective and an odd sense of comfort in those moments of angst.

Practically, Sartre’s philosophy simply does not transcend all classes within society, historically or modern. In an ideal world with no systemic inequality, living ‘authentically’ would be plausible for everyone. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world — prejudicial barriers exclude marginalised groups from freedom of choice. So for the rest of us, existentialism exists solely to keep us awake at night, imagining a life beyond our own.

You can find more of Alex’s work here…

Portfolio: https://alexandriaslater.medium.com/

By Alexandria Slater, based in Manchester, UK.

The global pandemic has stripped us of normality and taken the form of an unforgiving mirror, revealing the insecurities and doubts about existence that were previously concealed within society’s structures.

Familiarity is a distant memory of the past, and being imprisoned in isolation makes it difficult to resist spiralling into moments of existential dread. It should come as no surprise that existentialism has become a widely discussed topic on social media. But the ability to apply this particular philosophy to your personal life is a classist privilege that should be acknowledged.

Twentieth-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre condensed his theory on existentialism into three words — ‘existence precedes essence ‘. He :

‘Imagine a paper-cutter. For a paper-cutter, essence precedes existence because the idea and purpose of a paper-cutter must exist prior to a craftsman creating the paper-cutter.’

For Sartre, humans are the opposite of these created objects. Thus, individuals are condemned to freedom and must fulfil their purpose and potential outside of society’s expectations.

The classism creeps in with the belief that determinism — essentially the opposite of free will, in that everything in your life is predetermined — does not exist, and blaming external conditions for an unfulfilled life is merely an excuse, or as Sartre would put it, acting in ‘’.

This philosophy underpins the tone-deaf disconnect from reality that circulates social media. Timelines are flooded with well-intended but ignorant posts from influencers, advising people to simply ‘manifest their dreams’ and quit the job that makes them unhappy.

In reality, succumbing to the capitalist way of life is the only feasible option for many, regardless of the number of viral tweets that romanticise ‘leaving your 9 to 5 and buying a one-way ticket to X.’

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would have probably tweeted something similar if the internet existed during the early nineteenth century. Kierkegaard is noted as the earliest existentialist , as he came to bleakly believe that life under a capitalist system is nothing more than a checklist of milestones waiting to be ticked off.

‘When I got older, I opened my eyes and saw the real world…I saw that the meaning of life was to get a livelihood, the bright joy of love was to marry a well-off girl…that wisdom was what the majority said it was, that passion was to give a speech…that cordiality was to say ‘You’re welcome’ after a meal…and I laughed.’

This realisation triggered Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy which later influenced Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1940s.

Their views on existentialism differ in areas like religion. However, their mutually shared middle-class upbringing exposes the classist cracks in the philosophy’s foundation. Their privileged experiences will have influenced their beliefs, making it an inherently exclusive ideology.

Growing up, basic needs were never compromised for Kierkegaard or . They saw struggle through the lens of inevitable tragedies like death and global conflict. So yes, existentialism caters for understanding life’s dooming problems that cast despair onto everybody, but it fails to acknowledge the draining working-class struggles.

Kierkegaard’s affluent upbringing played a large role in his ability to pursue a successful career as a freelance writer. This is something that wouldn’t have been feasible for an individual of a lower class, not for lack of hard work or motivation, but because not everyone had a financial safety blanket to fall back onto if things didn’t work out. It’s no different , the opportunity to pursue your dream career is a luxury only a few have.

Sartre addressed the inequality of life by applying the tenet of ‘authenticity’ — in a world with no meaning, there is no real order or justice, meaning individuals must then take full responsibility for the outcome of their actions . Thus, living a fully authentic life.

However, I argue that this is a closeted and unrealistic idea for everyone to attain. Take lockdown, a rare circumstance where the same rules and consequences apply to everyone regardless of economic status. Both Dominic Cummings and a working man from Wigan broke the restrictions, and you could say, exercised their right to freedom. So, Sartre would argue that these men were living a fully authentic life, whilst the rest of us adhering to the rules were living in bad faith.

However, the situation results in an unjust outcome — the powerful politician faces no consequences , yet the ordinary man is burdened with a fine . It’s explicitly clear that the difference, in consequence, is based entirely on economic capital rather than individual wrongdoing. Further, even if Cummings had been given a fine, for a person on a politician’s salary, the fine would have been less of a grievance than someone with a lower income. Using this example, it is clear that living Sartre’s idea of authenticity is delusory for the working class.

French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir also highlighted the misogynistic restrictions women face under a patriarchal society. She , ‘our [women’s] freedom is not absolute, but situated’, reinforcing the unjust reality that only white, wealthy men can live authentically.

Interestingly, Sartre labelled himself as a Marxist after witnessing the exploitation of proletariats during WWII. However, his support of Marxism seems slightly performative. He a class-led revolution and claimed that the ‘proletarian experience’ was a form of alienation , arguing that a revolution formed by all members of society would be more effective.

Sartre’s efforts to liberate the working class from capitalist powers are appreciated. However, his attempt to avoid being held accountable as a member of the oppressing class by envisioning himself on the morally good side of a revolution demerits his advocacy for Marxism. Personal views on injustice simply aren’t enough to make existentialism accessible. I would say that it’s the thought that counts, but in this case, it isn’t.

Despite its flaws, I am not at all opposed to existentialism. In fact, in its colloquial sense, I find existentialism reassuring when dealing with crashing waves of anxiety, such as wondering how my family and friends perceive me and whether I’m just tolerated.

Or minor things like the time I stuttered during an interview and the corner of the interviewer’s mouth twitched, which must have meant she was trying not to laugh because she obviously pitied my inability to speak…instances like that.

Acknowledging that we’re just specks of matter floating on a rock in a continually expanding universe therefore none of those things matter (no pun intended), provides me with perspective and an odd sense of comfort in those moments of angst.

Practically, Sartre’s philosophy simply does not transcend all classes within society, historically or modern. In an ideal world with no systemic inequality, living ‘authentically’ would be plausible for everyone. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world — prejudicial barriers exclude marginalised groups from freedom of choice. So for the rest of us, existentialism exists solely to keep us awake at night, imagining a life beyond our own.

You can find more of Alex’s work here…

Portfolio: https://alexandriaslater.medium.com/

Originally published at https://www.overthinkzine.com on May 7, 2021.

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Journalist studying at Manchester Metropolitan University. Arts, culture, social justice.

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Alexandria Slater

Alexandria Slater

Journalist studying at Manchester Metropolitan University. Arts, culture, social justice.

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