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It is impossible for man to transcend subjectivity

It is impossible for man to transcend subjectivity
June 17
11:22 2019

Alex Vermeer

A key idea of Jean-Paul Sartre’s  existentialism—and of the human condition—is that existence precedes essence. The essence of something is its meaning, its intended purpose. A paper cutter is made to cut paper; that is its point. Humans, however, do not have an essence.

Man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. We have no greater purpose, no pre-determined plan, no ultimate meaning. We have, in Sartre’s words, no human nature, since there is nothing (e.g. God) outside of us which would conceive of it for us. We are simply here, and it is up to us to define ourselves.

Responsibility

Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. We have choice, we have subjectivity, and we choose what we will make ourselves to be; we are entirely responsible for our existence: Thus, existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him.

This thought is often not easily accepted. ‘Subjectivity’ is a word that riles up many. “If everything is subjective then nothing is objective; nothing is absolute! Our values are nothing more than our whims! Nothing is right or wrong.”

Sartre replies that, “it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity.” He isn’t saying “I prefer subjectivity over objectivity,” he’s asking, “how can we possibly not be subjective?” Even the religious individual who believes that morality is absolute and comes from God must, at some point, choose to believe that this is the case.

Our responsibility is a blessing and a curse. It leads us to feel things like anguish, forlornness, and despair.

Anguish

We experience anguish in the face of our subjectivity, because by choosing what we are to do, we ‘choose for everyone’. When you make a decision you are saying “this is how anyone ought to behave given these circumstances.”

Many people don’t feel anguish, but this is because they are “fleeing from it.” If you don’t feel a sense of anxiety when you make decisions, it’s because you are forgetting about your “total and deep responsibility” toward yourself and all of humanity.

Forlornness

Forlornness is the idea that “God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this.” There is no morality a priori. There is no absolute right or wrong.

“There is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. We have no values or commands to turn to which legitimizes our conduct.” In other words, we have no excuses, and we are entirely responsible for our decisions.

What are our values? The only way to determine them is to make a decision. At the end of the day, your ideals aren’t what matter; what matters is what you actually did.

Despair

Despair arises because we only have power to change things that are within our power to change—and there is a lot we cannot change. Reality is impartial and out of your control, except for small aspects of it here and there. We despair because we can never have full control of the future.

Regardless of what is right or wrong, good or bad, and regardless of whether these are absolutes or not, “things will be as man will have decided they are to be.” What will happen will happen and humanity will be entirely responsible for what it does.

Excerpted from alexvermeer.com. The 114th birth anniversary of Jean-Paul Sartre will be observed on June 21.

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