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Monday, March 19, 2018

Existentialism – Revisiting Jean-Paul Sartre And Radical Individualism In An Age Of Collective Identity

No Exit, published in 1943, explores the principal idea associated with Sartrean existentialism, namely that man is an absolutely autonomous individual, determined by his own will alone, for whom his consequent separation from others facilitates infallible liberty and free choice.


At the heart of Sartre’s philosophy is the idea of Inherent Autonomy or the intrinsic order of individual independence. Natural rights are the foundation upon which an authentic society rests. All rights are possessed by human beings. Every action and decision is made purely by free will. With no transcendent force "fating" individuals, they are left to make their own decisions. Humans have no pre-defined purpose or future, but through the exercise of free will they become who they are (BATR.org).

Society is the enemy of the individual, and the state its worst exponent. Political and social institutions always are antithetical to personal expression.  It is their job to stifle individual will or subjugate it to the collective.

Most Americans continue persist in the notion that America is the freest place on earth and point to the diversity of outspoken political expression today.  No cause goes unnoticed, and demonstrations and protests for social change are common, persistent, and loud. As America becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, more open and expressive of alternate sexuality, more faithful and more agnostic, the demands for rights increases exponentially.  The more American society is subdivided, and the more the ethos of community rights replaces more universal moral values, the less free – according to Sartre’s definition of the term – we become.  The individual is subsumed within a collective culture and identity.  A man is not simply a man but a white man, a black man, a gay man, or a progressive man.  His character is defined by the norms of the group to which he belongs.  Disavowing allegiances, declaring oneself apolitical and asocial, belonging to no one, responsible to no one, and dutiful only to self and soul is considered apostasy. 

Yet Sartre never disavowed social responsibility.  He, like Jefferson, valued the individual first and foremost; but concluded that right actions could not be selfish but must be taken in the context of community well-being.  Jefferson, a student and exponent of the Enlightenment felt that individualism was at the heart of spiritual evolution.  Individualism meant nothing if it did not have a purpose – a purpose higher than simple satisfaction and one which reflected one’s relation to God. 

Sartre was not moved by such spiritual concerns nor for any traditional or ethical ones.  The interaction of one individual with others  had nothing to do with collective action, political mobilization, or social progress

Both Sartre and Kant's approaches are based upon the ultimate value of a strong notion of freedom. As Sartre points out, by choosing, an individual commits not only himself, but the whole of humanity. Although there are no a priori values for Sartre, the agent's choice creates values in the same way as the artist does in the aesthetic realm. The values thus created by a proper exercise of one’s freedom have a universal dimension, in that any other human being could make sense of them were he to be placed in my situation. There is therefore a universality that is expressed in particular forms in each authentic project. This is a manifestation of what Sartre later refers to as the 'singular universal' (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Sartre was criticized for his position on ‘ontological freedom’, but he never disavowed his particular and radical notions of individual freedom.

Famously, Sartre claimed the French public was as free as ever during the Nazi occupation. In Being and Nothingness, he passionately argued that even prisoners are free because they have the power of consciousness. A prisoner, though coerced, can choose how to react to his imprisonment. The prisoner is free because he controls his reaction to imprisonment: he may resist or acquiesce. Since there are no objective barriers to the will, the prison bars restrain me only if I form the will to escape. In a similar example, Sartre notes that a mountain is only a barrier if the individual wants to get on the other side but cannot (Encyclopedia, op.cit.)

In a recent essay, Latif Hussain Kazmi, in Sartre on Human Freedom and Creativity, suggests that Sartre’s philosophy has particular relevance today.

It provides a new conception of man, and a new outlook by making "human existence" the real frame of reference. For Sartre human reality or human subjectivity is the foundation of all thought and action. He says that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and consequently defines himself afterwards.

Hinduism is often criticized in the West for being deliberately unconscious of social justice.  The caste system, these critics say, permanently enslaves people within their own narrow community.  There is no fungibility among castes, no American version of entrepreneurial ambition, no possibility of changing the conditions of your birth.

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Yet the caste system is far from the anti-progressive and backward system portrayed in the West.  It may not be socially progressive, but it is spiritually so.  The world is illusion, false temptations and blind alleys; and the only way to enlightenment is to ignore the illusions posing as reality, and to focus on the discipline and rigor prescribed in the Vedas.  The individual is central to this philosophy.  No compassion, good works, or social engagement has any spiritual benefit or use.  Only through a purposeful, individual, and personally conscious focus, can one attain higher levels of consciousness and being.

The comparisons between Sartre’s existentialism and Hinduism’s transcendental philosophy are striking.  Society and ascribed values mean nothing.  Value is not only derived only from the individual, but from each individual.

In many ways Protestant fundamentalism shares the view that salvation has nothing to do with good works but only with faith.  It is Jesus Christ in the final accounting who will determine who is saved and who is not.  His final balance sheet will be simple – who has believed in him and who has not, and from among them he will choose.

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This philosophical, spiritual sense of individualism has been lost in today’s aggressive social collectivism.  In order for members of minority and/or oppressed groups to gain the rights they deserve, take their proper place in American society, and benefit from its opportunities is to deny their uniqueness and their existential individuality.  Each individual has a unique consciousness determined by genes and environment; and as Sartre has said the greatest – in fact only – contribution and individual can make is by the full, unhindered, and free expression of that unique nature.  To deny it is to negate the value of the individual.

Nietzsche took this principle to its logical extreme.  The only validation of the individual, he said, was the expression of pure will beyond good and evil.  In contrast to the willful ubermensch the members of the following herd will never realize who they are, what they are, and what power they have.

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America was free at its founding.  New Americans understood that their destiny was to know God, to survive, and to prosper.  Individual enterprise benefitted all because it tapped the most essential aspects of human nature; and while there would necessarily be competition among competing claims, the human collective would be better off.  Socialism distorted this fundamentalism and sought to turn millennia of human enterprise on its head.  The individual was to be no longer at the center of society but the complaisant tool of social collectives, the most important of which was government.  However, now that socialism has been dismissed, and the hope for a more productively independent and individualistic society increased, there has appeared a worse, more anti-individualist movement – progressivism, a political philosophy which is as collective and as strongly adherent to government interventionism as socialism was.

There is no doubt that ‘secular individualism- - a far cry from Sartre’s ‘ontological freedom’ – is disruptive to progressive ideals; but in their intention to tame naked individualism and to socialize the most anti-social elements of the country, progressives have pushed the country almost to a point of no return.  After a certain point, the moral, ethical, spiritual, and philosophical precepts that originate in individualism ( a la Sartre) become irrelevant and supernumerary.   We have not yet reached that point, but we are very, very close.

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