Georg Lukács 1949


Written: 1949;
Translator: Henry F. Mins;
Source: Marxism and Human Liberation: Essays on History, Culture and Revolution by Georg Lukacs, Dell Publishing Co., 1973;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for, February 2008.

Tout se passe comme si le monde,
l’homme et l’homme dans le monde
n’arrivaient a réaliser qu’un Dieu
– Sartre, L’Etre et le néant

There is no reasonable doubt that existentialism will soon become the predominant philosophical current among bourgeois intellectuals. This state of affairs has been long in the making. Ever since the publication of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit the avant-garde intellectuals have seen in existentialism the philosophy of our times. In Germany, Jaspers undertook to communicate the principles of the new philosophy to broader sections of the educated public. During the war and since its end, the tide of existentialism rolled over the entire Western cultural field, and the leading German existentialists and their precursor, Husserl, have made great conquests in France and in America – not only in the United States but in Latin America as well. In 1943 the basic work of western existentialism appeared, Sartre’s big book cited above; and since then existentialism has been pressing forward irresistibly, through philosophical debates, special periodicals (Les Temps modernes), novels, and dramas.

1. Method as Attitude

Is all this a passing fad-perhaps one which may last a few years? Or is it really an epoch-making new philosophy? The answer depends on how accurately the new philosophy reflects reality, and how adequately it deals with the crucial human question with which the age is faced.

An epoch-making philosophy has never yet arisen without a really original method. This was so for all the great philosophers of the past, Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, Kant and Hegel. What is the originality of existentialism’s method? The question is not settled by referring to the fact that existentialism is an offshoot of Husserl’s philosophy. It is important to note that modern phenomenology is one of the numerous philosophical methods which seek to rise above both idealism and materialism by discovering a philosophical “third way,” by making intuition the true source of knowledge. From Nietzsche through Mach and Avenarius to Bergson and beyond, the mass of bourgeois philosophy goes this way. Husserl’s intuition of essence (Wesensschau) is but one strand of the development.

This would not in itself be a decisive argument against the phenomenological method. If we are to arrive at a correct judgment, we must first understand the philosophical and topical significance of the “third way,” as well as the place and function of intuition in the knowing process.

Is there any room for a “third way” besides idealism and materialism? If we consider this question seriously, as the great philosophers of the past did, and not with fashionable phrases, there can be only one answer, “No.” For when we look at the relations which can exist between being and consciousness we see clearly that only two positions are possible: either being is primary (materialism), or consciousness is primary (idealism). Or, to put it another way, the fundamental principle of materialism is the independence of being from consciousness; of idealism, the dependence of being on consciousness. The fashionable philosophers of today establish a correlation between being and consciousness as a basis for their “third way”: there is no being without consciousness and no consciousness without being. But the first assertion produces only a variant of idealism: the acknowledgment of the dependence of being on consciousness.

It was the grim reality of the imperialist period that forced the philosophical “third way” on bourgeois thinking: for only in becalmed, untroubled times can men hold themselves to be thorough-going idealists. When some students broke Fichte’s windows over a college quarrel Goethe said, smiling: “This is a very disagreeable way to take cognizance of the reality of the external world.” The imperialist epoch gave us such window-breaking on a world-wide scale. Downright philosophical idealism gently faded out. Apart from some minor professorial philosophers, anyone who declares himself an idealist today feels hopeless about applying his philosophy to reality (Valery, Benda, etc.).

The abandonment of the old downright idealism had been anticipated even in the middle of the last century by petty-bourgeois asceticism. Ever since Nietzsche, the body (Leib) has played a leading role in bourgeois philosophy. The new philosophy needs formulas which recognize the primary reality of the body and the joys and dangers of bodily existence, without, however, making any concessions to materialism. For at the same time materialism was becoming the worldview of the revolutionary proletariat. That made a position such as Gassendi and Hobbes look impossible for bourgeois thinkers. Although the method of idealism had been discredited by the realities of the time, its conclusions were held indispensable. This explains the need for the “third way” in the bourgeois world of the imperialist period.

The phenomenological method, especially after Husserl, believes it has discovered a way of knowing which exhibits the essence of objective reality without going beyond the human or even the individual consciousness. The intuition of essence is a sort of intuitive introspection, but is not psychologically oriented. It inquires rather what sort of objects the thought process posits, and what kind of intentional acts are involved. It was still relatively easy for Husserl to operate with these concepts, because he was concerned exclusively with questions of pure logic, i.e., pure acts and objects of thought. The question became more complex as Scheler took up problems of ethics and sociology, and Heidegger and Sartre broached the ultimate questions of philosophy. The need of the times which drove them in this direction was so compelling that it silenced all gnosiological doubts as to whether the method was adequate to objective reality.

Even when the phenomenologists dealt with crucial questions of social actuality, they put off the theory of knowledge and asserted that the phenomenological method suspends or “brackets” the question whether the intentional objects are real. The method was thus freed from any knowledge of reality. Once during the First World War Scheler visited me in Heidelberg, and we had an informing conversation on this subject. Scheler maintained that phenomenology was a universal method which could have anything for its intentional object. For example, he explained, phenomenological researches could be made about the devil; only the question of the devil’s reality would first have to be “bracketed.” “Certainly,” I answered. “and when when you are finished with the phenomenological picture of the devil, you open the brackets – and the devil in person is standing before you.” Scheler laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and made no reply.

The arbitrariness of the method is seen especially when the question is raised: Is what phenomenological intuition finds actually real? What right does that intuition have to speak of the reality of its object? For Dilthey’s intuition, the colorfulness and the uniqueness of historical situations are the reality; for Bergson’s, it is the flow itself, the duration (durée), that dissolves the petrified forms of ordinary life; while for Husserl’s, the acts in which individual objects are meant constitute “reality” – objects which he treats as isolated units, with hard contours like statuary. Although mutually exclusive, these intuitions were able to dwell together in relative peace.

These interpretations of reality stem from factors even more concrete than the social need for a “third way.” It is a general tendency of the imperialist period to regard social relationships as secondary circumstances which do not concern the essence of man. The intuition of essence takes the immediate givenness of inner experience as its starting point, which it regards as unconditioned and primary, never looking into its character and preconditions, and proceeds thence to its final abstract “vision,” divorced from reality. Such intuitions, under the social conditions of the time, could easily abstract from all social actuality while keeping the appearance of utter objectivity and rigor. In this way there arose the logical myth of a world (in splendid accord with the attitude of bourgeois intellectuals) independent of consciousness, although its structure and characteristics are said to be determined by the individual consciousness.

lt is impossible here to give a detailed critique of the phenomenological method. We shall therefore merely analyze in summary fashion an example of the way it is applied. We have chosen the book of Szilasi, the well known student of Husserl and Heidegger,[1] partly because Szilasi is an earnest thinker who aims at scientific objectivity, not a cynical fabricator of myths like Scheler; and partly because the elementary form of the example is well suited to a brief treatment. Szilasi takes as his instance the co-presence (Miteinandersein) at his lecture of his hearers and himself. Describing the essence of the situation, he finds that the hall lies before him, the benches, in a word, the external world: “This space with its variously worked boards is a lecture hall only because we understand this mass of wooden objects as such, and we do understand it so because from the outset we mean it as something presupposed in our common task – namely, lecturing and listening.” From which he concludes, “It is the way of being together that determines what the thing is.”

Let us consider the result of this intuition of essence from the methodological point of view. First, it is a primitive abstraction when Szilasi speaks of “variously worked boards,” and not of desks, benches, etc. But this is methodologically essential, for if he should concede that the lecture hall is equally adapted to holding philological, legal, and other lectures, what would be left of the magical potency of the intentional experience, which is supposed to make the object what it is?

However, what the analysis omits is still more important. The hall is in Zurich, and the time is the 1940s. The fact that Szilasi could deliver a lecture precisely in Zurich has the most diverse social preconditions. For instance, before Hitler’s seizure of power Szilasi gave his lectures in Freiburg; after 1933 they were no longer permitted, in fact the lecturer had to leave Germany because his personal safety was threatened. Why is all this missing from the intuition of co-presence? It belongs there at least as much as do the “worked boards.”

But let us return to the boards. The fact that boards are used in a certain way to make desks and benches presupposes a certain stage of development of industry and of society. Again, the fact that the boards and the ball as a whole are in a certain condition (is there coal for heating, or glass in the windows?) is inseparably connected with other social events and structures. But phenomenological method, excluding all social elements from its analysis, confronts consciousness with a chaos of things (and men) which only individual subjectivity can articulate and objectify. Here we have the well-publicized phenomenological objectivity, the “third way,” which turns out to be only a revival of neo-Kantianism.

Phenomenology and the ontology deriving from it only seem to go beyond the gnosiological solipsism of subjective idealism. A formally new formulation of the question reinstates ontological idealism. It is no accident that (just as forty years ago the Machists reproached one another for idealism, each recognizing only himself as the discoverer of the philosophical “third way”) today the existentialists make similar accusations against one another. So Sartre complains of Husserl and Heidegger, two men he otherwise prizes highly. Husserl, in his opinion, has not gone beyond Kant; and he criticizes Heidegger as follows: “The character being-together [co-presence, Mitsein] introduced by Heidegger is a character of the isolated ego. Hence it does not lead beyond solipsism. Therefore we shall search Sein und Zeit in vain for a position beyond both idealism and realism [meaning materialism].” An analysis of Sartre’s philosophy will show us that he can be taxed with the offense for which he condemns Husserl and Heidegger. Heidegger’s philosophy existence (Dasein) does not mean objective being (Sein) proper, but human existence, i.e., a being aware of existence. In some places Sartre, who has more interest than his predecessors in the emotional and practical relation of man to nature, spells out the complete dependence of nature on man s consciousness. When speaking of devastation, he denies that it exists in nature itself, in which only changes take place. “And even this expression is inadequate, for in order that this changing-to-something-else may be posited, a witness is needed who somehow or other preserves the past within himself and is able to compare it with the present in its ‘no-longer’ form.” And in another place he says: “The full moon does not denote the future, except when we observe the waxing moon in the ‘world’ which reveals itself in human actuality: the future comes into the world by way of human existence.”

This purely idealistic tendency is heightened in Sartre by the fact that his way of handling problems compels him to study concrete questions of co-existence (Mitsein) even more frequently than Heidegger. He meets the difficulty partly by choosing loosely connected manifestations of co-presence that can be referred with some plausibility to the inner experiences of the ego (a rendezvous at a café, a trip in the subway). But when actual social activity is involved (labor, class consciousness), he makes a methodological salto mortale and declares that the experiences of the relevant intuitions of essence are of psychological and not of ontological character. The reason for this is the secret of the initiate, those to whom the intuition of essence is granted. It is therefore no accident that when Sartre tests the relation of man to his fellow man he recognizes only the following relations as ontologically essential, that is, as elements of reality in itself: love, speech, masochism, indifference, longing, hate, and sadism. (Even the order of the categories is Sartre’s.) Anything beyond this in Miteinandersein, the categories of collective life together, of working together, of fighting in a common cause, is for Sartre, as we have seen, a category of consciousness (psychological) and not a really existent category (ontological).

When all this is applied to actual cases, the result is banal Philistine commonplaces. In his popular book Sartre takes up the question of how far he can have confidence in his freely acting comrades. Answer: “As far as I have immediate personal knowledge of them, to count on the unity and will of the party is just like counting on the streetcar to come on time, and on the train not to jump the tracks. But I cannot count on men that I do not know, banking on human goodness or man’s interest in the common good, for it is a given datum that man is free and there is no such thing as a human nature on which I can count.” Apart from the involved terminology, any petty bourgeois, shrinking from public affairs, could, and does, say as much.

2. The Myth of Nothingness

Il est absurde que nous sommes nés,
il est absurde que nous mourrons.
– Sartre, L’Etre et le néant

It would be an error to assume that such an abstract narrowing of reality, such an idealist distortion of the problem of reality, by intelligent and experienced men is intentional deceit. On the contrary, those inner experiences which constitute the attitude revealed in the intuition of the Wesensschau, and its content, are as sincere and spontaneous as possible. But that does not make them objectively correct. Indeed this spontaneity, by betraying its immediate uncritical attitude toward the basic phenomenon, creates the false consciousness: fetishism. Fetishism signifies, in brief, that the relations among human beings which function by means of objects are reflected in human consciousness immediately as things, because of the structure of capitalist economy. They become objects or things, fetishes in which men crystallize their social relationships, as savages do their relationships to nature; and for savages the laws of natural relations are just as impenetrable as the laws of the capitalist system of economy are to the men of the world of today. Like savages, modern men pray to the fetishes they themselves have made, bow down to them, and sacrifice to them (e.g., the fetish of money). Human relations, as Marx says, acquire “a spectral objectivity.” The social existence of man becomes a riddle in his immediate experience, even though objectively he is a social being first and foremost, despite all immediate appearances to the contrary.

It is not our aim nor our task to treat of the problem of fetish making: to do so would require a systematic development of the whole structure of capitalist society and the forms of false consciousness arising out of it. I shall merely point out the most important questions which have had decisive influence on the development of existentialism.

The first is life’s losing its meaning. Man loses the center, weight, and connectedness of his own life, a fact life itself compels him to realize. The phenomenon has been known for a long time. Ibsen, in Peer Gynt, puts it into a striking little scene. The aging Peer Gynt is peeling off the layers of an onion, and playfully compares the single layers with the periods of his life, hoping at the end to come to the core of the onion and the core of his own personality. But layer follows layer, period after period of life; and no core is found.

Everyone whom this experience has touched faces the question: How can my life become meaningful? The man who lives in the fetish-making world does not see that every life is rich, full, and meaningful to the extent that it is consciously linked in human relations with other lives. The isolated egoistic man who lives only for himself lives in an impoverished world. His experiences approach threateningly close to the unessential and begin to merge into nothingness the more exclusively they are his alone, and turned solely inward.

The man of the fetishized world, who can cure his disgust with the world only in intoxication, seeks, like the morphine addict, to find a way out by heightening the intensity of the intoxicant rather than by a way of life that has no need of intoxication. He is not aware that the loss of communal life, the degradation and dehumanization of collective work as a result of capitalist division of labor, and the severance of human relations from social activity have stupefied him. He does not see this, and goes further and further along the fatal path, which tends to become a subjective need. For in capitalist society public life, work, and the system of human relations are under the spell of fetish making, reification and dehumanization. Only revolt against the actual foundations, as we can see in many authors of the time, leads to a clearer appreciation of these foundations, and thence to a new social perspective. Escape into inwardness is a tragic-comical blind alley.

As long as the pillars of capitalist society seemed unshakable, say up to the first world war, the so-called avant-garde danced with the fetishes of their inner life. Some writers, it is true, saw the approach of the inevitable catastrophe (Ibsen, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, etc.). The gaudy carnival, often with a ghastly tone from tragic incidental music, went on uninterrupted. The philosophy of Simmel and Bergson and much of the literature of the time show exactly where things were heading.

Many a good writer and keen thinker saw through the intoxication of carnival to the fact that the fetishized ego had lost its essence. But they went no further than to sketch tragic or tragi-comic perspectives behind the garish whirl. The fetishized bases of life seemed so beyond question that they escaped study, let alone criticism. If there were doubts, they were like the doubt of the Hindu who questioned the accepted doctrine that the world rests on a huge elephant; he asked modestly on what the elephant rested; and when told it rested on a huge tortoise, he went his way contented. Mind was so formed by fetish thinking that when the first world war and the subsequent series of crises called the very possibility of human existence into question, giving a new tinge to every idea, and when the carnival of isolated individualism gave way to its Ash Wednesday, there was still virtually no change in the way that philosophical questions were asked.

Yet the aim and direction of the quest for essence did change. The existentialism of Heidegger and Jaspers is proof. The experience which underlies this philosophy is easily stated: man stands face to face with nothingness or nonbeing. The fundamental relation of man to the world is the situation of vis-à-vis de rien. There is nothing particularly original in this. Ever since Poe, perhaps the first to describe the situation and the corresponding attitude, modern literature has dwelt upon the tragic fate which drives a man to the edge of the abyss. As examples we may mention the situation of Raskolnikov after the murder, and the road to suicide of Svidrigailov or Stavrogin. What is involved here? A characteristic tragic form of development, arising out of present-day life. A great writer weaves these tragic destinies, which are as vivid and positive as were the tragedies of Oedipus and Hamlet in their day.

The originality of Heidegger is that he takes just such situations as typical and makes them his starting point. With the help of the complicated method of phenomenology, he lodges the entire problem in the fetishized structure of the bourgeois mind, in the dreary hopeless nihilism and pessimism of the intellectuals of the interval between the two world wars. The first fetish is the concept of nothingness. In Heidegger as in Sartre, this is the central problem of reality, of ontology. In Heidegger nothingness is an ontological datum on a level with existence; in Sartre it is only one factor in existence, which nevertheless enters into all the manifestations of being.

A very specialized philosophical dissertation would be required to show the chains of thought, sometimes quite false, sometimes obviously sophistical, by which Sartre seeks to justify his theory of negative judgment. It is true that, for every “No” which expresses a particular judgment, there is a positively existing situation. But it is only idolizing of subjective attitudes that gives nothingness the semblance of reality. When I inquire, for instance, what the laws of the solar system are, I have not posited any negative being, such as Sartre envisages. The meaning of my question is simply that I lack knowledge. The answer may be put in either positive or negative form, but the same positive reality is indicated in either case. Only sophistry could infer the “existence” of nonbeing. The nothingness which fascinates recent philosophers is a myth of declining capitalist society. While previously it was individuals (though socially typical ones) like Stavrogin and Svidrigailov that had to face nothingness, today it is a whole system that has reached this chimerical outlook. For Heidegger and Sartre life itself is the state of being cast into nothingness.

Existentialism consistently proclaims that nothing can be known by man. It does not challenge science in general; it does not raise skeptical objections to its practical or technical uses. It merely denies that there is a science which has the right to say anything about the one essential question: the relation of the individual to life. This is the alleged superiority of existentialism to the old philosophy. “Existential philosophy,” Jaspers says, “would be lost immediately if it started believing again that it knew what man is.” This radical ignorance on principle, which is stressed by Heidegger and Sartre, is one of the main reasons for the overwhelming influence of existentialism. Men who have no prospects themselves find consolation in the doctrine that life in general has no prospects to offer.

Here existentialism flows into the modern current of irrationalism. The phenomenological and ontological method seems, it is true, to stand in bold contrast to the ordinary irrationalist tendencies. Are not the former “rigorously scientific,” and was not Husserl a supporter of the most fanatical of logicians, Bolzano and Brentano? But even a superficial study of the method at once discloses its links with the masters of irrationalism, Dilthey and Bergson. And when Heidegger renewed Kierkegaard’s efforts, the tie became even closer.

This connection is more than an accidental convergence of two methods. The more phenomenology is transformed into the method of existentialism, the more the underlying irrationality of the individual and of being becomes the central object, and the closer becomes its affinity to irrational currents of the time. Being is meaningless, uncaused, unnecessary. Being is by definition “the originally fortuitous,” says Sartre. If nothingness comes to “exist” by the magic of existentialism, existence is made negative. Existence is what man lacks. The human being, says Heidegger, “knows what he is only from ‘existence,’ i.e., from his own potentialities,” whether he becomes the one he “is,” or not. Is man’s becoming authentic or not? We have seen that in the leading trends of modern philosophy this question has an antisocial character. Using the familiar method, Heidegger subjects man’s everyday life to phenomenological analysis. The life of man is a co-existence and at the same time a being-in-the-world. This being also has its fetish; namely, “one.” In German, subjectless sentences begin with man (“one”): “One writes,” “One does.” Heidegger, making myths, erects this word into an ontological existent in order to express philosophically what seems to him to be the function of society and social life; viz., to turn man away from himself, to make him unauthentic, to prevent him from being himself. The manifestation of “one” in daily life is chatter, curiosity, ambiguity, “falling.” To follow the path of one’s own existence, according to Heidegger, one must take the road to death, his own death; one must live in such a way that his death does not come upon him as a brute fact breaking in on him from without, but as his own. Actual existence can find its crowning achievement only in such a personal demise. The complete capriciousness and subjectivism of the ontology, concealed behind a show of objectivity, come to light once more. As a confession of a citizen of the 1920s, Heidegger’s way of thinking is not without interest. Sein und Zeit is at least as absorbing reading as Céline’s novel, Journey to the End of the Night. But the former, like the latter, is merely a document of the day showing how a class felt and thought, and not an “ontological” disclosure of ultimate truth. It is only because this book is so well suited to the emotional world of today’s intellectuals that the arbitrariness of its pseudoargumentation is not exposed. The contrast of abstract death to meaningless life is for many men today an implicit axiom. But it suffices to glance at the mode of thought of older times, before collapse started, to realize that this attitude toward death is not the ontological character of “being” but a transitory phenomenon. Spinoza said: “The free man thinks of anything but his death; his wisdom is not death but pondering on life.”

Jaspers and Sartre are less radical than Heidegger in this respect, although their thought is not the less conditioned by time and class. Sartre flatly rejects the concept of specific or personal death as a category of existentialism. In Jaspers, the phantom of “one” does not appear formally in such a radically mystifying form, but only as the totality of the nameless powers ruling life (that is, essentially, social life once more objectivized in a fetish). He contents himself with assigning man, once he has acquired his essence and begun to live his own private existence, strictly to the paths of private life. In Geneva recently Jaspers developed the thesis that nothing good or essential can come of political or social activity: the salvation of man is possible only when every one passionately concerns himself exclusively with his own existence and in relations with other individuals of like persuasion.

Here the labors of the philosophical mountain have only produced a dreary Philistine mouse. Ernst Bloch, the well known German anti-fascist writer (whose book appeared in 1935), said of Heidegger’s death theory (from which Jaspers’ personal morality is obtained simply by the addition of water): Taking eternal death as goal makes man’s existing social situation a matter of such indifference that it might as well remain capitalistic. The assertion of death as absolute fate and sole destination has the same significance for today’s counterrevolution as formerly the consolation of the hereafter had. This keen observation casts light too on the reason why the popularity of existentialism is growing not only among snobs but also among reactionary writers.

3. Freedom in a Fetishized World and the Fetish of Freedom

Je construis l’universel en me choisissant.
– Sartre: L’Existentialisme est un hurnanisme.

Existentialism is the philosophy not only of death but also of abstract freedom. This is the most important reason for the popularity of Sartre’s forms of existentialism; and-although it may sound paradoxical-the reactionary side of existentialism’s present influence is here concealed. Heidegger, as we know, saw the way to existence’s becoming essential and real only in a life directed toward death; Sartre’s shrewd comments put an end to the specious probativeness of Heidegger’s exposition. This contradiction between Sartre and Heidegger is an expression not merely of the divergent attitudes of French and German intellectuals toward the central problems of life, but also of the changed times. Heidegger’s basic book appeared in 1927, on the eve of the new world crisis, in the oppressed murky atmosphere before the fascist storm; and the effect Bloch described was the general state of intellectuals. We do not know when Sartre’s book appeared; the nominal date is 1943 – that is, when liberation from fascism was already in sight and when, just because of the decade-long rule of fascism, the longing for freedom was the deepest feeling of the intellectuals of all Europe, especially of countries where they had grown up in democratic traditions. The inner experience – above all, in the Western countries – was one of freedom in general, abstractly, without analysis or differentiation, in brief freedom as myth, which precisely because of its formlessness was able to unite under its flag all enemies of fascism, who (whatever their point of view) hated their origin or their goal. Only one thing mattered to these men, to say “No” to fascism. The less specific the “No” was, the better it expressed the feeling of actuality. The abstract “No” and its pendant, abstract freedom, were to many men the exact expression of the “myth” of the resistance. We shall see that Sartre’s notion of freedom is most abstract. This enables us to understand why the sense of the time exalted existentialism and yielded to it as adequate philosophy of the day.

However, fascism collapsed, and the construction and re-enforcement of democracy and free life engaged the public opinion of every country as its first concern. Every serious argument, from politics to Weltanschauung, revolves now around the question of what the democracy and freedom should be which mankind is building on the ruins of fascist destruction.

Existentialism has kept its popularity under these changed circumstances; indeed, it would seem that it is now for the first time – to be sure, in Sartre’s formulation, not Heidegger’s – on the road to world conquest. One decisive factor here is the fact that existentialism gives the notion of freedom a central place in its philosophy. But today freedom is no longer a myth. The strivings for freedom have become concrete, more and more concrete every day. Violent disputes over the interpretation of freedom and democracy have split the supporters of the various schools into antagonistic camps. Under such circumstances how is it possible that existentialism, with its rigid, abstract conception of freedom, should become a worldwide trend? Or more precisely, whom, and how, does existentialism carry conviction as a philosophy of freedom? To answer this central question, we must come to closer grips with Sartre’s concept of freedom.

According to him, freedom is a basic fact of human existence. We represent, says Sartre, “freedom which chooses, but we could not choose to be free. We are doomed to freedom.” We are thrown into freedom (Heidegger’s Geworfenheit).

Not choosing, however, is just as much choice as choosing is; avoiding action is action too. Everywhere Sartre stresses this role of freedom, from the most primitive facts of everyday life to the ultimate questions of metaphysics. When I take part in a group excursion, get tired, am weighed down by my pack, and so forth, I am faced with the fact of free choice, and must decide whether I will go on with my companions or throw off my burden and sit down by the roadside. From this problem the way leads to the final, most abstract problems of human existence; in the plans or projects in which man concretizes his free decision and free choice (projet, projeter is one of the most important notions of Sartre’s theory of freedom) there lies the content of the ultimate ideal, the last “project”: God. In Sartre’s words: “The basic plan of human reality is best illustrated by the fact that man is the being whose plan it is to become God. . . . Being a man is equivalent to being engaged in becoming God.” And the philosophical content of this ideal of God is the attainment of that stage of existence which the old philosophy denoted as causa sui.

Sartre’s notion of freedom is extremely broad and indeterminate, lacking specific criteria. Choice, the essence of freedom, consists for him in the act of choosing oneself. The constant danger lurking here is that we could become other than we are. And here there is no moral compass or plumb line. For instance, cowardice stems from free choice just as much as courage does. “My fear is free and attests my freedom; I have cast all my freedom into my fear and chosen myself as cowardly in such and such circumstances; in other circumstances I might exist as courageous and put my freedom into courage. With respect to freedom, no ideal has any precedence.”

Since for Sartre all human existence is free by definition, his notion of freedom is even more indefinite than that of Heidegger. Heidegger could differentiate between the free and the unfree. For him, that man is free who programmatically lives toward his own death; unfree and unauthentic, he who, forgetting his own death, lives not as a self but in the crowd. Sartre rejects this criterion, as we have seen. He also rejects such a hierarchy of moral values as Scheler had conceived, as well as any connection of free choice with man’s past, viz., the principle of continuity and consistency of personality. Finally, he denies the Kantian formal distinction between free and unfree acts.

He seems, it is true, to be somewhat frightened by this indeterminateness. In his popular pamphlet he says, “Nothing can be good for us which is not good for everyone,” and in another place: “At the same time that I will my own freedom it is my duty to will the freedom of others. I cannot set my own freedom as goal unless I also set that of others as my goal.” This sounds very fine. But in Sartre it is only an eclectic insertion into existentialism, of the moral principles of the Enlightenment and the Kantian philosophy. Kant did not succeed in establishing objective morality by generalizing subjectivity. The young Hegel, in a sharp critique, showed this failure. However, Kant’s generalization still stands in intimate connection with the first principles of his social philosophy; in Sartre, this generalization is an eclectic compromise with traditional philosophical opinion, contradicting his ontological position.

In his capital work he does not make these concessions. True to his basic thought, ontological solipsism, the content and goal of the free act are meaningful and explicable only from the point of view of the subject. Here Sartre still states a view opposite to that of his popular brochure: “Respect for the freedom of one’s fellow man is idle chatter: even if we could so plan that we honored this freedom, such an attitude would be a violation of the freedom which we were so busy respecting.” In the same place he illustrates this conception by a very concrete example: “When I bring about tolerance among my fellow men I have forcibly hurled them into a tolerant world. In so doing I have in principle taken away their free capacity for courageous resistance, for perseverance, for self-testing, which they would have had the opportunity of developing in some world of intolerance.”

This cynical view that there are no unfree acts has significant resemblance to the view that there are no free acts. While even Heidegger knew that we can speak of a free act only if man is capable of being coerced as well, Sartre does not know this. Like the determinist, Sartre reduces human phenomena to one level. But determinism is at least a system, verifiable in part, whereas Sartre’s free acts are a disconnected, fortuitous conglomeration.

What is the legitimate factor in Sartre? Without question, the emphasis on the individual’s decision, whose importance was undervalued alike by bourgeois determinism and by vulgar Marxism. All social activity is made up of the actions of individuals, and no matter how decisive the economic basis may be in these decisions, its effects are felt only “in the long run,” as Engels so often stresses. This means that there is always a concrete area of free choice for the individual, which does not conflict with the feet that history has its general and necessary trends of development. The mere existence of political parties proves the reality of this area. The main directions of development can be foreseen; but, as Engels stressed, it would be idle pedantry to try to foretell from the laws of evolution whether in a given case Peter or Paul will individually decide this way or that, vote for this party or the other, and so forth. The necessity of evolution is always effected by means of internal and external contingencies. It would be a service to science to show their significance and study their place and role, if at the same time their methodological meaning in the whole dialectical process were more precisely determined than formerly. In this sense a role which should not be underestimated attaches to moral problems and questions of freedom and individual decision in the total dialectical knowledge of social development.

Sartre, to be sure, does exactly the opposite. We have seen that, as has been fashionable for decades, he denies necessary development and even development itself. Even in the case of individuals he divorces decision situations from the past. He denies any genuine connection of the individual with society. He construes the individual’s world as completely different from that of his fellow men. The notion of freedom thus obtained is fatalistic and strained in a mechanical way; it thus loses all meaning. If we look at it a little more closely, it has virtually no connection with the actual moral concept of freedom. It says no more than what Engels said in an occasional remark; namely, that there is no human activity in which individual consciousness could not play a part.

Obviously Sartre himself sees the difficulty of his notion of freedom. But he remains faithful to his method, and busies himself with balancing one overstrained and meaningless conception against another: freedom against responsibility, the latter being for Sartre just as universal and unconditionally valid as the concept of freedom. “If I choose to join the army instead of to die or suffer dishonor, that is equivalent to taking the entire responsibility for this war.”

Here again the formal-logical overstraining of a relative truth-factor leads to the theoretical and practical annihilation of the concept in question. For so rigid a formulation of responsibility is identical with complete irresponsibility. We did not need to be politicians or Marxists to see that. A master of the “psychology of depths,” Dostoevsky, often said that extreme rigid forcing of moral principles and moral decisions generally has no influence on men’s actions. They sweep overhead, and the men who act on them have weaker moral guidance than would be the case if they had no principles at all. In the shadow of the rigorous pitiless feeling of responsibility, extending to the point of suicide, it is easy to commit one villainy after another with frivolous cynicism.

Sartre sees something of all this, but without drawing any conclusions from it. So he weaves fetishes and myths around the problem he vaguely discerns, and concludes with the trivial phrase: “Any one who in anguish” (angoisse has been a decisive category of existentialism since the Kierkegaardian Reception) “realizes that his condition of life is that of being thrown into a responsibility which leads to complete isolation: that man knows no more remorse, regret, or self-justification.” Just as the sublime is but a step from the ridiculous, so a certain kind of moral sublimity is only a step from frivolity and cynicism.

It was necessary for us to elaborate thus sharply on the bankruptcy of the Sartrean concept of freedom because this is precisely the key to the widespread effectiveness of the doctrine in certain circles. Such an abstract, forced, totally vacuous and irrationalized conception of freedom and responsibility, the haughty scorn for social viewpoints and public life used to defend the ontological integrity of the individual – all adequately rounds out the myth of nothingness, especially for the requirements of snobs: for they must be particularly impressed with the mixture of cruelly strict principle with cynical looseness of action and moral nihilism. But in addition this conception of freedom gives a certain section of intellectuals, always inclined toward extreme individualism, an ideological support and justification for refusing the unfolding and building of democracy. There have been writers who, calling themselves democrats, under took to defend the rights of the black market and of the sabotaging and swindling capitalist, all in the name of individual freedom, and who carried the principle so far that room is found for the freedom of reaction and fascism; responsibility has been the slogan in whose name the attempt was first made to block the registration of the new owners’ land and later to call for their return. Sartre’s abstract and strained conception of freedom and responsibility was just what these forces could use.

Sartre’s hooks do not give us the impression that he exactly desires to be the ideologist of these groups; and certainly there are genuine and sincere democrats among his French supporters. But large-scale fashions pay little heed to the internal intentions of their authors. The various currents of society have their own ideological requirements, and say with Moliere, “je prends mon bien où je le trouve.” So, not only snobbishness but reaction too manages to cook its broth at the fire of existentialism. This is one more reason for us to point out that the acquisition of existentialism is no Promethean deed, no theft of celestial fire, but rather the commonplace action of using the lighted cigarette of a chance passer-by to light one’s own.

This is no accident, but follows from the very nature of the phenomenological method and from the ontology which grows out of it. The method is far from being as original as its apostles would like to believe. For, no matter how arbitrary the transition may be from “bracketed” reality to allegedly genuine objective reality, the mere possibility of the transition still has its philosophical roots, though this point never is consciously formulated by the ontologists. This basis is essentially that of the dominant theory of knowledge in the nineteenth century; namely, the Kantian. Kant’s clear formulation had the cogency worthy of a serious philosopher: existence does not signify enrichment of the content of objectivity, and hence not formal enrichment either; the content of the thought-of dollar is exactly the same as that of the real dollar. The existence of the object means neither novelty nor enrichment, whether with respect to content or to structure of the concept. Clearly, therefore, when the ontologists “bracket” the thought-of object and then clear the “brackets,” they tacitly assume this Kantian conception.

The notion appears quite obvious; the only thing wrong with it is that it is not true. The Kantian idealism unconsciously borrowed from mechanical materialism the identity of the structure and content of the thought-of and the actual object. The real dialectic of objective reality, however, shows at every step that existence enriches the thought-of object with elements which are conceptually new with respect to content and structure. This consequence follows not only from the virtual infinity of every actual object, as a result of which the most complete thought is only an approximation, i.e. the object of ontology is even in principle richer in content and therefore of richer, more complicated structure than the phenomenological object of mere consciousness. And this is a consequence as well of the extensionally and intensionally infinite Verflochtenheit (interrelatedness) of real objects, in which the reciprocal action of their relations changes the objects’ functions and then reacts on their objectivity. In this context mere existence, the brute fact, becomes under certain circumstances one of the characters and changes the concept of objectivity, with respect to content and structure. Let us consider the theory of money, to continue with Kant’s example. So long as we speak of money as a medium of circulation, we might still assume that thought-of money is identical with real money (although we should be wrong even here). But the very concept of money as a medium of payment implies existence; there is present in this case a conceptual difference between the thought-of dollar and the real one, a difference which constitutes a new category. Only the actual dollar, in one’s possession, can be a means of payment. Money in itself is not enough; we must have it too.

Modern ontology bypasses these considerations, not unintentionally. The isolating intuition of the isolated individual – in this connection it is immaterial whether his interest is directed toward the object, fixed in its rigidity, or toward the changefulness of thought – lifts every object out of the complex and living fabric of its existence, functions, relations, interactions, etc., dissolving it out of the real, living, moving totality. The “original achievement” of phenomenology and ontology in this field consists merely in the fact that it dogmatically identifies reality with the objectivity it has thus obtained. For them, objectivity and objective reality mean one and the same thing.


1. Wissenschaft als Philosophie, Zurich, 1945.