One of the plights that existentialism as a philosophy has endured over time is multiple interpretations as well as multiple meanings. One of the main reason is that though the term was coined in 20th century, it was then pinned on the works of some previous philosophers who wrote about some questions and problems that it sought to answer.No one really knows how much those philosophers would have ascribed to it. One pretty apparent example is Camus, who many a times is associated with existentialism, owing to certain similar problems that he sought to address, but never really propagated it. So much so that he even openly refused the connection.
Existentialism is a Humanism was one of the early works of Sartre and was written soon after the term was coined and was starting to become popular. The essay is more of a reply to some of the arguments put against it at that time; also it’s an attempt of rescuing it from multitude of different easy-as-per-convenience definitions, as associating with existentialism became a kind of cool things that time. The main intent of the essay, as evident from the title is the Humanism connection which Sartre puts but committing that when a man chooses an action or performs a deed he’s not only responsible for himself but also of everyone else. Few snippets:
When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. If I am a worker, for instance, I may choose to join a Christian rather than a Communist trade union. And if, by that membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the attitude that best becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this earth, I do not commit myself alone to that view. Resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind. Or if, to take a more personal case, I decide to marry and to have children, even though this decision proceeds simply from my situation, from my passion or my desire, I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.
But the subjectivity which we thus postulate as the standard of truth is no narrowly individual subjectivism, for as we have demonstrated, it is not only one’s own self that one discovers in the cogito, but those of others too. Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to that of Kant, when we say “I think” we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves. Thus the man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition of his own existence. He recognises that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which one says one is spiritual, or that one is wicked or jealous) unless others recognise him as such. I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself. Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me. Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of “inter-subjectivity”. It is in this world that man has to decide what he is and what others are.
Sartre in the essay ends up talking about this individual-humanity connection in two aspects. First one is more of a moral binding, which I don’t know how many of the other existentialists would aggree to. Second one is more interesting as it has some hues of phemenology, but still it seems distant from the any humanism what so ever. but going strictly by the defination of Humanism it ideally has to be moralistic. Well, existentialism though looks pretty plain in a general understanding it certainly does have lot more beneath it. I have a copy of Being and Nothingness with me now, but it looks pretty daunting. Here the link of Lev Shestov’s Kierkegaard & the Existential Philosophy. Looks to be an interesting read, though Shestov’s writing is said to be paradoxical at places.