John's Reviews > Existentialism and Human Emotions

Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre
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's review
Apr 24, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: philosophy, politics, science-nature
Read in April, 2009

If Sartre wanted to endear himself to the masses, he did himself no favors with the cover to Existentialism and Human Emotions, with his pipe-puffing professoriality conveying enough know-it-allness to give most anyone not assigned to read it a hearty guffaw. Which is a shame really, as this 96-page essay serves as an excellent primer for anyone who thinks of existentialism as a ponderous, do-nothing philosophy (If all I am to do is exist, why do anything else?), defining the terms, fielding common accusations from other religious and philosophical camps, and connecting existential philosophy to other critical traditions.

That said, the title is a bit misleading, or incomplete at least – it really just introduces and retorts the accusations Sartre wrote the essay in reaction to. It does this brilliantly though, especially on pp18-33 where he fairly systematically explains the philosophical reasoning behind the 3 quintessentially existential emotions of anguish, forlornness, and despair. Outside of this and a section from page 41-51 where he addresses 3 major emotional objections to existential philosophy, he is speaking on a more general plane – I almost think that it would be published today under the title Existentialism for Dummies.

What I found most engaging in the text (mostly the section simply entitled “Existentialism” that takes up the first 51 pages) was his connection of the notion of subjectivity in religious, philosophical, and practical discourse, summed up in this passage from pp22-23: “If existence really does precedes essence, there is no explaining things away by reference to a fixed and given human nature. In other words, there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. On the other hand, if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses.”

In context of a modern world of jihad, know-nothing consumerism, religious fundamentalism, and a creeping sense of dislocation in both the family and the workplace, Sartre’s words are scathingly prophetic, as each of these elements of the modern world has one thing in common: each subjective way of looking at the world is equally right – or equally wrong – and we are without recourse when things don’t go as we hoped (“To be sure, this may seem a harsh thought to someone whose life hasn’t been a success”).

But the wondrous thing about the text is that, despite the focus on words like anguish and despair, Sartre ends up coming off as fairly optimistic. This achieved at least partially by his following the notion of subjectivity with the notion of intersubjectivity – “this is the world in which man decides what he is and what others are.” I would describe this as almost a fusion of the classically opposite Civil Society and State of Nature – every person is dependent on other people insomuch as those people influence our own “projects,” as Sartre calls them; in other words, when they impose their wills enough that their world, their projects become part of ours.

He follows this up in the short section entitled “The Hole,” stating, “A good part of our life [and it may simply be the translator’s choice, but I found it encouraging that he said “life,” not “lives”:] is passed in plugging up holes, in filling empty spaces, in realizing and symbolically establishing a plenitude.” He actually hilariously (though not intentionally so) applies this to sexual intercourse and eating in two of the more entertaining passages, with the mouth and the you-know-what being the holes literally and symbolically filled.

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Meagan Hey, I've still got a copy of this on my shelf from a philosophy class I took in college. Maybe this should be next after Greil Marcus! I've just finished the Kesey and I'll be looking for a used copy of OWA next week in TX!

Read on!

John I'd be totally into that! It's short, and it's Christine's book so she's already read it - we could have some fun w/that one! BTW, wanna get together, say, mid-end of March to talk about Dylan? (I just finished my nephew's birthday mix, and included Odds & Ends on it.)

Meagan Yes, yes, and yes! This should be an interesting two-fer with Bob....Odds and Ends is a great song, by the way!

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