Reading Questions: Sartre

For Sartre, your reading assignment includes all of the first essay, (pp. 9-51), and also pp. 52-59 and pp. 91-96. You may also want to read pp. 84-90 just for fun. Some of this material, especially the last parts, may be difficult and confusing. I don't expect you to master all the details. The reading questions may help you identify the most important points.

1. What three objections to existentialism does Sartre mention at the very outset of the first essay? (9-10)

2. Why do you think critics of existentialism relate its taking of "the Cartesian I think" or "the cogito" (from Descartes’ "cogito ergo sum") as its starting point with isolation? (9-10)

3. Contrary to what others say, does Sartre view existentialism as more optimistic or more pessimistic? (12)

4. What two types of existentialists does Sartre distinguish? What is the defining feature of an existentialist (in other words, what do the two groups have in common)? What figures are identified in the two groups? (12-13)

5. Sartre says that for the paper-cutter, "essence precedes existence." What does he mean by this? (13) Sartre implies that this idea (i.e. "essence precedes existence") is the implicit view on the nature of people in the work of philosophers like Descartes. Why? What does this have to do with their belief in God? (14) How was this sort of view maintained in 18th century philosophy, even though God no longer plays the same role? (14-15)

6. Sartre claims that his own belief is that, for humans, "existence precedes essence"? What does he mean by this? What does this mean about whether or not there is a definable human nature? (15)

7. What is the "first principle" of existentialism? (15) How does this relate to subjectivity and time? (15-16) To what extent, for Sartre, is human existence constituted by our nature as beings who freely choose a plan of living? (16)

8. According to existentialism, are we responsible for who we are? What or who else are we responsible for? (16) What are the two meanings of subjectivism Sartre identifies? (16-17) In what sense do we choose for all people when we make a choice? (17-18) What limitations does this hold for how we are to understand judgments about what is good and bad? (17)

9. What is anguish? What does it mean to mask one’s anguish? How do the examples regarding angels, and voices from God and military leaders illustrate what Sartre is talking about? (17-21)

10. What is forlornness? (21) What does Sartre think of those who think it is possible for us to maintain the same sort of ethics previously believed in by religious people but who want to give up the belief in God? (21-22) What does the existentialist claim must be given up along with the belief in God? (22) What is the existentialist "starting point" Sartre takes from Dostoievsky? (22)

11. What does Sartre mean when he says that we are "condemned to be free"? Can we appeal to sweeping passions to make excuses for the things we do? (23)

12. In what sense is it true to say that humans are their future? In what sense is it false? (23-24)

13. What advice does Sartre give to the student he describes on pp. 24-28? Why does he give the answer he gives—or to put it another way—why doesn't he give him a different answer or refer him to someone else? What is it that the student was looking for that Sartre doesn't think is possible to give? How does all this relate to anguish? (24-29)

14. What is despair? Does Sartre think we can change the rest of the world to conform to our own will? (29) How does Sartre's position regarding whether or not we should rely on others to carry on our struggles differ from that of the communists? (30-31)

15. Does Sartre think that the recognition of despair should lead to quietism? Why or why not? (31-32)

16. What is it about the existentialist notion that "You are nothing but your life," that horrifies people, according to Sartre? What sorts of ways of explaining who we are does Sartre find to be "cowardly"? (32-35)

17. What is the "absolute truth" that Sartre thinks is foundational for all other truth? (36)

18. In what way is existentialism, according to Sartre, the only philosophy that gives people dignity? (37)

19. Why does Sartre think that existentialist subjectivity is not isolationist, i.e. why does he think that the I think actually leads to an immediate awareness of others? (37-38)

20. Although Sartre denies a universal human nature, he does believe in a universal human condition. How does he describe it? How does it relate to our ability to understand others? (38-39)

21. What does Sartre have to say about the arbitrariness of human choice and values? What factors keep free choice from being completely arbitrary? What does ethics have in common with art? (40-44)

22. Critics of existentialism charge that it holds that we are unable to pass judgment on others. In what sense does Sartre agree and in what sense does he disagree? (44-45)

23. What does it mean to "choose dishonestly"? What is Sartre's attitude to such dishonesty? (45)

24. What does Sartre claim is the basis of all values? What follows from this in terms of what we can and cannot want? (45-46)

25. Given his theories on dishonesty and freedom, what does Sartre conclude about in what ways it is appropriate to judge others morally and whether or not a universal ethical system is possible? (46-49)

26. What two sorts of humanism does Sartre distinguish? Which sort of humanism does Sartre believe in and which does he think is absurd? Why? (49-51)

27. What does Sartre say at the very end of the first essay about whether or not God's existence is an important matter for existentialism? (51) To you, does this seem consistent with what he said earlier in the essay and earlier in the same paragraph?

28. How does Sartre define "responsibility"? Because of our responsibility, with what attitude should we approach the situations we find ourselves confronted with in life? Why is it senseless to think of complaining? (52-53)

29. In what way is everything that happens to me "mine," and every situation I encounter "human"? (53-54)

30. What does Sartre mean when he says there are no accidents in a life? What sorts of examples does he give and how do they illustrate this? (54-55)

31. If I live through a war, in what way is it true that I am that war? How does the particular time in which I live become a part of my very existence? (55-56)

32. What does Sartre mean when he says that he is abandoned? What does he not mean? (57)

33. In what sense does Sartre think we actually choose to be born ? (57-58)

34. What is the revelation in which Sartre thinks our very being resides? (59) Do you have at least a vague sense of what he means here? If yes, explain. If no, what is unclear?

35. Why can't ontology lead to the sort of ethics that tells us what to do in a particular situation? What, however, does ontology reveal about what humans are and how our existence relates to our values? (91)

36. What is "the spirit of seriousness"? Why does Sartre think it is a sort of bad faith and attempt to be free of anguish? (92-93)

37. What unattainable "synthetic unity" is the passionate goal of our pursuit or project? (93)

38. Since existentialists know that this goal is unattainable, what do they seek to reveal about humans as moral agents and as people who are in some sense constituted by their own possibilities of being? (94-95)

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