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Sartre on Freedom and Power: Problems and Permutations

"A person does what he does because he sees the world as he sees it"

Alfred Korzybski

© Josef Kala, March 2018

Sartre on Freedom and Power: Problems and Permutations

Drawing of Friedrich Nietzsche by Karl Bauer. Copyright © Writer Pictures
Drawing of Friedrich Nietzsche by Karl Bauer. Copyright © Writer Pictures

“A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions – as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all.”
The Gay Science, FW Nietzsche

In this essay, I seek to present a brief overview of Jean-Paul Sartre’s principal notions around human freedom in the contexts in which he developed and presented them during different parts of his career, looking at their merits as well as their attendant problems from my own critical perspective. First, I demonstrate that Sartre’s most famous and polemical statement of human beings’ inimitable and inescapable freedom by existence in Existentialism & Humanism was not only simplistic and ill-grounded in its presentation, but that Sartre was well aware of this fact and that he knowingly omitted much of the sophistication in his ideas and thought on the occasion of that public speech in 1945. I then go through a number of key distinctions around Sartre’s doctrine of freedom as being inextricable from human existence, paying close attention to peculiar definitions in Sartre’s use of such notions as Freedom, Choice, Power, Commitment, and Situations. While doing this in a discursive manner, attending to what these subtle concepts and arguments entail for practical people living their practical lives with conscientious considerations at heart, I argue that over the decades, Sartre both expounds a highly important body of work on the subject of human choice and the nature of the ever-accompanying intricacies surrounding it, but that he also strangely limits the importance of his assertions on freedom itself in the very effort of expounding this body of work. I close the essay with these concluding remarks and an appraisal of Sartre as an Existentialist in word and deed.

The Radical Statement in Existentialism & Humanism
In October 1945, as World War II came to an end and an exasperated generation in France yearned for hope in the face of engulfing despair, Jean-Paul Sartre gave his most famous public speech in Paris, in defence of Existentialism, to an overcrowded audience brimming with enthusiasm for the new movement that was overtaking French intellectual discourse: a movement which Sartre proclaimed as affirming freedom, choice and invention of the self as humanity’s unavoidable responsibility – its inescapable fact of existence (Sartre, 1973, 28).
In the face of charges against the Existentialist movement as leading to despondency and atrophic meaninglessness, due to its perceived nihilistic outlook, Sartre set out to dispel such an impression, in favour of its liberating, empowering qualities arising from the recognition of man’s ever-present freedom. In summary, Sartre’s message in this speech can be set in two parts: ‘Existence precedes essence’ (ibid. 26), and ‘Man is condemned to be free’ (ibid. 34). The first of these claims, signifying that man has no essential preordained nature, will not be considered in much detail here, but suffice to say that Sartre believed it was the essential premise that united existentialist atheists of all kinds (ibid. 26). It is the second part to Sartre’s message – and more particularly how he pronounced it boldly as limitless – that raises much uproar, both in favour of his doctrine and against it. In short, Sartre appears to deny any form of causal determinism without any qualifications; he proclaimed that the only thing we are not free to do is to be unfree (ibid. 26); and, unlike in Being & Nothingness (1943), he refrained from distinguishing between different types of phenomena, some of which can be explained by “mechanistic determinism” (B&N, 136) and others (such as embodied consciousness) by “a permanent rupture in determinism” (B&N, 57), nor indeed did he do much to allude to the importance of historicity in outlining our phenomenal experience. The outcome is that, with such a radical and decisive public assertion on freedom as the fundamental fact of human existence, Sartre both aroused his audience and exposed himself to philosophical critique and examination.

Commitment in ‘doing’ Existentialism rather than propounding it
Rest assured, Sartre was fully aware of what he was doing and, with his views on freedom being more intricate than a blunt pronouncement of it, he was just as much prepared to hold his own against the philosophical criticisms laid against him. In a post-speech discussion after Existentialism & Humanism, Sartre explained why he knowingly ‘weakened’ his idea of freedom in order to popularize it:

… after all, when one expounds theories in a class of philosophy one consents to some weakening of an idea in order to make it understood, and it is not such a bad thing to do. If one has a theory of commitment one must commit oneself to see it through. If in truth existential philosophy is above all a philosophy which says that existence precedes essence, it must be lived to be really sincere; and to live as an existentialist is to consent to pay for this teaching, not to put it into books. If you want this philosophy to be indeed a commitment, you have to render some account of it to people who discuss it upon the political or the moral plane.

Sartre, J. (1973), 58

We see here that Sartre’s dampening down the complexity of his idea through a proclamation without explaining it, was an act of rhetorical technique in which he commits to propagating his existentialist thought to the wider sphere of people in “the political or the moral plane” (ibid.) Let us now look at the subtleties involved in Sartre’s actual teaching on the subject of freedom through a number of his other works, while paying close attention to how he uses his terms.

Defining what it is like to be free
Sartre apparently caused outrage in his 1946 play, Men without Shadows, in which he claimed that the French people had never been as free as during the Nazi occupation (Priest, 177). Such flagrant statements as this one are largely accountable for Sartre commonly being misunderstood for having an unrealistic and distorted view of human freedom.
       In Being & Nothingness Sartre makes an important distinction between freedom and power (ibid.). For Sartre, “’To be free’ does not mean ‘to obtain what one has wished’ but rather ‘by oneself to determine oneself to wish’ (in the broad sense of choosing)” (B&N, 652). He goes on to say that “success is not important to freedom” (ibid.). In essence, this is another way of saying that ‘freedom’ is the freedom to choose how to respond to the conditions in which we find ourselves, rather than to do or achieve whatever we happen to fancy. A slight nuance away from the popular conceptions usually associated around the word ‘freedom’. Sartre believes that, no matter what our situation, we can always pause and choose between two or more possible actions – and it is this quality that he calls freedom and which he believes can never be taken away from us. This sounds erringly similar to Viktor Frankl’s statement about the 'last of human freedoms’:

They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way

“The Last of Human Freedoms,” 1

Power, on the other hand, is an inextricable tie between a subjectivity and its environment, in which circumstances and material causality play a definitive role in how one can effect changes on the surroundings. While freedom, in the sense in which Sartre uses it, may be absolute, power may be severely constrained (Priest, 177). At this point, it is crucial to understand how Sartre understands the term Situation, without which one cannot appreciate Sartrean freedom. For Sartre, as we have noted, freedom to choose and the power to act are two separate things – both intrinsic, nonetheless, to the situation: that is, “the For-itself’s engagement in the world. It is the product of both facticity and the For-itself’s way of accepting and acting upon its facticity.” (B&N, 655). In this light, one can see, that freedom in Sartre’s view – i.e., Situational Freedom – is a freedom that has meaning based only in relation to the limits on one’s power. That is to say, a person fully embodies his freedom to choose once he realizes the limits of his power to act according to his choices. As Stephen Priest paraphrases Sartre on the matter:

A human being is not separable from the human condition. A person divorced from the totality of their situations is an intellectual abstraction that can only be partly achieved. I am what I am only in relation to my situations.

“Freedom”, Sartre: Basic writings (2001), 177

Cartesian conflicts
It is clear from the above that Sartre’s commonly (mis-)understood conception of freedom as declared in Existentialism & Humanism (1945) is a far more watered-down and unqualified version of his sophisticated analyses on freedom. Nonetheless, this is not to suggest that Sartre’s often complex analyses of freedom and choice in the context of their situations maintains coherence. In many of his non-fiction works it seems, Sartre fluctuates between clarity and ambiguity around certain central notions, like that of freedom. Existentialism & Humanism is a text that can easily be read as representing a Cartesian dualism, in which one specifies human qualities and mental states without reference to the inter-dependence of those qualities and states to their environment. And, as Jean Boorsch has argued, neither is this the only place Sartre presents as such. Boorsch describes Sartre as “torn between two tendencies”:

On the one hand, he is trying to find in Descartes an ancestor of Existentialism, and he annexes him with a brazenness compared with which the frequent Catholic annexations of authors foreign to them fades into insignificance; on the other hand, the power of historical truth remains too great to allow such a transfiguration…

“Sartre’s View of Cartesian Liberty” (1948), 91

I think what Boorsch refers to above as Sartre being ‘torn between two tendencies’ is rather a critical take on what can be viewed as Sartre’s continual exploration of ideas, his perpetual work in progress – which albeit is written in assertive manner that comes across as the completed product. Sartre develops his understanding of Being-in-the-world when he addresses the question of whether people can stop and transform their lives completely at any given point, by reconsidering all their past choices: he does so when presenting the notion of the Original Project, or the Fundamental Project as it is often translated. Sartre defines the project as “the For-itself’s choice of its way of being and is expressed by action in the light of a future end” (B&N, 654). In other words, our present choices are built upon a string of prior choices that we made in the past; the capacity of disassembling the hitherto developed edifice of accumulated choices is contingent on many factors, including, of course, the totality of situations in which we are enmeshed in the world. This may be influenced and/or restricted, for benefit or harm, by the known future consequences of our present choices to act in particular ways, something else that also plays a role in our power to act, as opposed to our freedom to choose. As an example, consider a prisoner of war being forced into indentured labour. His freedom to resist or to rebel will always be there, however successful, but the consequences of attempting to do so – that is, of enacting his freedom to choose – severely restrict his power to do so; consequences that can range from exile to even death. Choice, Sartre highlights, is not always easy; it raises anxiety – and the realization of which leads to anguish, i.e. “the apprehension of the Self as freedom” (B&N, 649). In the discussions on Situation and Fundamental Project, Sartre distances himself from Cartesian dualism (“Cartesian Freedom” 1947). And yet, Priest writes, “For all his repudiation of Descartes… the primacy and inescapability of the first person singular exercise of, and confrontation with, freedom remains thoroughly Cartesian” (179). I do not think that this necessarily undermines the value of Sartre’s ontology as such, notwithstanding, as mentioned, his confidently assertive tone in writing style. Sartre, as quoted above, was a committed existentialist, a philosopher in practice and in persuasion, who sought to live his ideas as he developed them and propagated them. This inevitably results in weaknesses being exposed while he delivered them, sometimes slipping into a Cartesian paradigm, while at other times being true to the phenomenological ontology that inspired him and which he promulgated.

Concluding thoughts
Holding the polemical statements in Existentialism and Humanism aside, Sartre’s articulation of his concept of freedom in Being & Nothingness and in some others of his writings demonstrate variations between sophistication and opacity. Nonetheless, I think that in demarking freedom to choose from power to act, Sartre at once cuts away several indictments that would be easily laid against him from the philosophical schools of determinism and historicism; but he also, in my opinion, lessens the importance of his praise of freedom by limiting it to the mere phenomenon of being able to choose a response in a given situation. I do not wish to mitigate the significance of our responses to situations in life in the least, but if that is all that Sartre is appraising, he certainly seems to go to great lengths in elaborating a lucid point that is already succinct in and of itself. Which leads one to think that, over 400 years after the first publication of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1599), and in an age where ideas and ideals are as a rule first preceded by their means, perhaps Hamlet was timelessly correct, after all, when he said unto his dear confidante:

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

Act 1 Sc 5, 187-188: Hamlet


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  • Sartre, J. (2010). Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge.
  • Sartre, J. and Turner, C. (2017). Situations. London: Seagull Books.
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  • Shakespeare, W. (2008). Hamlet: The Oxford Shakespeare: The Oxford Shakespeare Hamlet (Oxford World's Classics). OUP, Oxford
  • Boorsch, J. “Sartre's View of Cartesian Liberty”, Yale French Studies No. 1, Existentialism (1948), pp. 90-96.
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