Jumat, 19 Juni 2009


I. Context of The Text

One may consider that philosophy is a way to understand the human's existence in this universe. A philosopher will endeavor to reach a promising conception to elaborate the meaning of humanity. Some of philosophers believe that human has a big rule in shaping the world, but they still recognize that there is a being which has the ultimate power, i.e. God. They claim that the essence of human precedes his existence since there is a priori essence before human's existence. It simply can be shown in the case of seeing a tree. Before knowing that a thing is a tree, we have some criteria in our mind about the form of a tree. Thus, it is true that the essence of a tree comes before its existence. However, some are of the opinion that the humankind has a right to be independent and free from other beings which might reduce the meaning of his existence. Even God should not exist since He potentially determines the essence of human beings. This group asserts that "to have an essence is not to have an essence". So, they can be recognized as the "existentialists" against the former one, the "essentialists". To this point, the existentialists could be called as anti-philosophy philosopher for their disagreement with the general view of philosophers who mostly belong to the first group, e.g. Plato.

Discussing further the matter of existentialism, we may see some outstanding thinkers of this doctrine including atheist existentialists such as Heidegger and Sartre. This paper, nevertheless, will only concern the idea of Sartre (1905-1980) who elaborates his thought in his short work entitled "Existentialism and Humanism". The goal of that article is to reply the objections from the communist and the Christians. One of The communists' reproaches is that the existentialism may cause people to get involved in quietism of despair since there is no solution for their problems. So, they will contemplate to find the answer. This contemplation is then considered as money consuming and become another type of bourgeois philosophy. On the other hand, the Christians reproach the existentialists for they neglect the reality and ignore the revelation of the Almighty and all eternal values.

To answer these challenges, Sartre explains somewhat detail in that book to convince the readers that existentialism is not as bad as they condemn. He clearly offers some interesting views to support his argument such as human subjectivity which will lead to freedom and choice. These terms, however, will be explicated further in the following part of this paper. Hence, the notion of existential humanism becomes a possible offer since existentialism focuses much on human subjectivity which requires no legislator but human beings themselves.

In response to Sartre's notion, I appreciate much his controversial thought. To some degree, I am in line with Sartre when he strongly emphasizes the individual subjectivity that may result in human's freedom of choice to shape their essence. But, I disagree with his idea that to be free we should be agnostic or even atheists to the existence of God for we may encounter the idea of human freedom in Islamic tradition. I will elaborate more deeply this notion in the discussion part of this work.

II. The Structure of Argument

The main idea introduced by Sartre in his opus, particularly in page 29 of his "Existentialism and Humanism" is "existence precedes essence". This is really different from the common belief which shows the inverse. The meaning of that statement is that essence of human beings has not been made yet, they are "thrown" to the earth, find themselves as the "lost" creatures, choose the action they prefer and finally shape their essence. Sartre comes to this conclusion after explaining the urgency of God's absence. For him, God who is identified as "supernatural artisan" does not necessarily occur in human life since human beings have to make a choice in each part of his life. They do not need some guidance and values to measure their deeds as a consequence of having no pre-given essence. Sartre nicely illustrates that humankind is not like other things such as a book or a paper-knife which are determined by their a priori essence in artisan's mind.[1] Hence, if the essence of human beings is in God's mind, they are nothing else than the robots which are not responsible for their activities since they just obey the instructions from the creator. They will, therefore, live in "bad faith" (mauvaise foi)[2] which leads to "inauthenticity", borrowing Husserl's term.[3] God himself has, then, to be responsible for his action while human beings have to let their freedom go away resulting in meaningless of their life. Therefore, to raise the dignity of human, it is necessary to reduce the role of God (like the idea of secular moralist) or even to abolish His existence in human sphere. Sartre simply calls this situation "abandonment".[4]

Furthermore, in choosing a particular choice, even not to choose is still a choice, a person should consider his own individuality as well as the interest of community. I may infer that this notion is compatible with Husserl's idea about "bottom-up" pattern of promoting an authentic community. Based on his freedom and rationality, an individual is responsible for his activities and aware of their impacts towards society. Hence, he will choose the better choice since nothing can be better for him unless it is better for all human beings. Even though there is no a priori value, Sartre certainly asserts that human's feeling may become the source of his values which could change every time. It can be seen in the case of Sartre's student whose feeling shows that he should stay with his mother rather than to go to England. The theologians, on the other side, strongly oppose this argument saying that it is obvious that there is a general morality. However, Sartre replies that we still have the right to interpret those signs. Thus, human beings cannot pass beyond their subjectivity.

III. The passage's Key Ideas

To comprehend the given passage in page 29 of Sartre's work, it is vitally important to take some key words or sentences into our account. Here are some of them with a brief explanation.

· Existentialism: Sartre defines this term saying that it is "a doctrine that does render human life possible" meaning that when human is born as free creature without any pre-given essence, he should seek his essence throughout his life on the earth.

· Subjectivism: is a belief that gives the chance for people to make their choice based on their individual's judgment. It is closely related to subjectivity which has a big role for humans in choosing something in their life.

· Freedom: is the situation of a human who does not depend upon others. Freedom will lead to a possibility of choice. He will choose and be responsible for its consequence.

· He Choose for all men: it means that what a person selects for himself actually has the impact for other people. Therefore he should think his choice deeply before making a decision.

· What we choose is always the better: this statement means that since the basic consideration in deciding a choice is for all human beings, a person will be responsible for choosing the better or even the best choice for all people based on his "feeling".

· Existence precedes essence: this statement is closely related to the basic idea of existentialism which means that the meaning of human life cannot be judged before his existence. Nothing perceives the man's essence. In contrast, "essence precedes existence" means that the idea of a being has been conceived by the creator, for example, the trousers has an essence before its existence in designer's mind. Such a designer has made a plan to make that trousers by drawing a certain design, providing materials and proceeding it to become such things.

IV. Essay of Critical Explanation

Sartre's idea about "existence precedes essence" is really a good conception to promote the emergence of an authentic humanity. To support his notion, he confidently declares that the existence of God is an absurd thing or at least to be agnostic about God is a good choice. He explains further that human beings should decide whatever they want to. If God exists, the freedom of human beings is threatened since He will impose some regulations which have to be obeyed. Therefore, it is necessary to abandon God in order to seek the essence of human life for freedom and choice are the basic requirements to be promote an authentic humanity.

Particularly in his work, "Existentialism and Humanism", page 29, Sartre clearly maintains that a human being's essence comes after their existence. To be a human is to have no essence. An individual should find his essence along his existence in earthly life. Freedom becomes a necessary requirement since a person does not have some pre-given values as a means of measurement. Related to this point, Sartre agrees with Dostoievsky saying that everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist.[5] There is no "goodness" or "badness" conception for human. The absence of any values will lead to the situation that one will never be able to elaborate or even judge one's action by reference to "human nature" which does not exist as a result of God's disappearance. Here, human is born free without any determination and limitation as Descartes says "I think, therefore I am". This is a starting point to make an authentic person come into being.

The first consequence of having no essence, a human being is responsible for he is. It means that he should be responsible for every action since he fully possesses himself as a reflection of the individual subjectivity. By using his reason, he is challenged to make a choice amongst many possibilities in front of him. This situation often makes an individual come into "anguish" and "despair". He should think carefully several effects resulting from his decision. For example, a farmer has to cultivate some vegetables in his field during the rainy season. But, he has a problem of choice whether he selects some kinds of vegetables or just chooses a particular type of vegetables for his project. In this sense, he is responsible for his decision since there is no pre-given guidance to do that. Some people, perhaps, will disagree with this argument stating that there is a general guidance for cultivation. Sartre will reply that even though there is a clear guidance for that matter, such a farmer still has the right to choose based on his "feeling". It is interesting to note that "feeling" is something changeable that gives the possibility for a person to check and recheck his choice. Therefore, it is not surprising that the essence of human beings is absolutely indefinable since the way to shape the essence is really unlimited by the time and situation. The essence of human beings will be clearly seen after their death.

Secondly, in the process of making a choice, Sartre mentions, a person is not only responsible for his own subjectivity, but also for all human beings. It means that he should think whatever he will take by considering the freedom of other people. It is really a tremendous burden for him. For example, I choose to be a graduate student in Jakarta meaning that before doing so, I should make a deep consideration whether I continue my study in higher level or work to earn some money. Both alternatives are actually very hard to determine. Each has a serious consequence, several positive and negative impacts. I should weigh as a pupil of Sartre did before deciding whether to stay with his mother or go to England to join Free France Force. Therefore, when I choose my position as a student, I am responsible for its following effects. I should study hard without thinking about being a wealthy man since I could not work. But, I believe that such a choice has a good impact for all human beings because after my graduation I will dedicate all my knowledge more meaningful to all people in society. It is therefore a better choice for me. To this respect, we may conclude that this individual subjectivity will possibly constitute a communal choice since all the member of that community always pay attention to the need of other people. Therefore, Sartre asserts, the huge burden resulting from freedom can be shared to other people since all people will take the interest of others into their account. This sense can be simply understood as "inter-subjectivity"[6] and will be able to constitute an authentic community using bottom-up or "I-We" analogy.

Finally, the other thing that I can study from Sartre's view points is the relativity of human beings. Using first interpretation of authenticity, we may portray Sartre's view saying that an individual has a fixed identity whether he is living in "bad faith" or in freedom. Once he becomes an inauthentic individual, he will remain in that situation for whole life and vise versa. In contrast, we may read his notion through applying the second way of interpretation and I think it is more eligible in reading Sartre's. Related to the idea that human's existence is prior to his essence, human relativity becomes an unavoidable phenomenon. A person will make a lot of choices in his life to seek his essence. We cannot judge that he will live in "bad faith" forever but he is possible to change his attitude to be a free human. For instance, a prostitute may change her life by making a new choice. Probably, she victimizes herself because she cannot avoid her "fate". Since she understands that her position as a prostitute is a matter of choice, she is possible to change her way of life to become, say, a tailor.

As a comparison to Sartre's freedom of choice, I propose a phenomenon occurring in Islamic tradition. We may encounter that the problem of human's independence can be seen in the debate between qadariya (free will) and jabariya (determinism). The former group strongly asserts that human being has the freedom to choose even though they believe in God. This notion is based on the human's limitation to know God's intention. Therefore, a person should be optimistic to select the best thing in their life regardless of the fate. For example, when we dream to be a professor, we do not know whether God has made a plan for our professorship. Because of that situation, we should try and strive to achieve that dream with full struggle. Additionally, this group, even in doing rituals, strongly rely on their reason since they are very sure that they can determine the best way to worship God without revelation. If there is a revelation, they still have the right to interpret it. In contrast, Jabariya maintains that God has already determined everything related to his creature including human beings. An individual has no chance to choose his way of life since God with his power and strength will apply every detail to His creature. Thus, a person who belongs to Jabariya will sincerely receive whatever God gives to him. For instance, a worker does not need to work hard for his wealth has been determined by God. Although he is in the workplace, it does not guarantee that he gets some money. But, if God plans to give the wealth to His creature, a person will suddenly be rich in spite of being jobless. Hence, God is responsible for his action in creating all things in this life. Paying attention to the description above, Sartre's thought about freedom seems to be in line with the first group that maintains the human's freedom to choose.

But, the question is still there. "Should we disbelieve God's existence for the case that His existence will interfere with human's choice?" Following Sartre's line of reasoning, I tend to agree with Sartre when he claims that human has a subjectivity to determine their way of life. It is really important that human should be optimistic in facing a variety of worldly phenomena. Nevertheless, I disagree with him that God should not exist just because He is suspected to interfere with human activity. We might make a compromise as offered by Asy'ariya (ash'arite) which stands between Qadariya and Jabariya, saying that human beings are the creature of the Almighty. However, since we do not know our conception in God's mind, we have to choose the better or even the best way of life by struggling all the time. Qur'an says that "God never change any situation including the fate unless human beings change by their own hand."[7] Many things that we cannot choose should be considered as the destiny from God such as the environment and unexpected situation. Therefore, deep patience and resignation (tawakal) are the possible attitudes after striving.

In summary, Sartre's idea of "existence precedes essence" can be considered as a valuable contribution in generating the emergence of an authentic individual resulting in an authentic community. He applies the bottom-up pattern as Husserl did. His project begins from the conception of free individual that has the right to make a choice based on his "feeling". Nonetheless, a person should not only consider his own interest in deciding a choice but also the interest of all people since he should choose a better choice for all. If all human beings apply such a notion by inter-subjectivity understanding, an authentic community will be possible to occur.

However, I am not in line with Sartre's idea of God's absence. Since we do not know our essence in God's mind, we still have the full possibility to choose whatever our intentionality is as is shown in Qadariya's tenet. Our essence depends on our choices which vary from time to time. The anxiety and despair that are the result of freedom can be minimized, as introduced by Asy'arite, by deep patience and resignation. The presence of God becomes something crucial, as Kierkegaard—another existentialist--believes, to maintain a peaceful life for humanity.***

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, translated and introduced by Philip Mairet, Methuen & Co.ltd, London, pp. 26-7

[2] See Sartre, Bad Faith, in lecture materials, p. 132

[3] See Husserl, Kaizo IV, p. 14

[4] Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, p. 32

[5] See Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, p. 33

[6] Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, p. 45

[7] Qur'an, Sura Al-Ra'du: 12

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