Jean-Paul Sartre: An Exploration of Existentialism and Its Implications


Born in 1905, Jean-Paul Sartre emerged as a renowned philosophical writer whose contributions to existentialism, Marxism, and anarchism significantly impacted the intellectual landscape of the post-World War II era (Basic Writings). This essay aims to provide a comprehensive overview of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist views, tracing the development of his existentialism and emphasizing the centrality of individual choice in shaping destiny. In addition, this essay will explore related concepts such as being-in-itself, being-for-itself, being-for-others, and bad faith.

Existentialism: A Framework for Individual Freedom

Existentialism, as a philosophical movement, emphasizes individuality, subjectivity, freedom, and choice (Trends and Ideas).

It grapples with profound questions about the human condition, the meaning of life, and the individual's role in shaping their destiny. Jean-Paul Sartre, along with other existentialist thinkers, delves into these questions, offering a unique perspective on the human experience.

Existentialism as a Shared Thought

Existentialism is often considered a shared thought rather than a neatly defined doctrine (Sartre for Beginners). Jean-Paul Sartre himself provided a definition of existentialism in his essay "Existentialism is Humanism," where he characterized it as a doctrine that affirms human life's possibility, emphasizing the truth based on human subjectivity (Existentialism is Humanism).

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Central to Sartre's existentialist philosophy is the idea that existence precedes essence, a concept that challenges traditional notions of human nature and purpose.

Existence Precedes Essence

Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist philosophy posits that existence precedes essence (Existentialism is Humanism). In simpler terms, this implies that humans do not possess a predetermined essence or purpose; instead, they exist first and then define themselves through their choices and actions.

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To illustrate this concept, Sartre employs the example of a paper knife created by an artisan (Existentialism is Humanism). While the artisan may have a specific purpose in mind when crafting the paper knife, it is ultimately up to humans to determine its functionality and purpose. Essence, in this context, refers to the predefined nature or purpose of an object, and Sartre's inversion of the relationship between existence and essence challenges conventional thinking.

The Absence of a Supreme Being

Crucial to Sartre's existentialism is the absence of a supreme being, eliminating the need to ponder the existence of God (Atheism and Existentialism). Sartre contends that humans, in the absence of a higher deity, lay the foundations of morality and bear the responsibility for their choices (Existentialism is Humanism). This concept, encapsulated in Sartre's first principle of existentialism, emphasizes the autonomy of individuals in shaping their lives.

Human Reality and Ontology

Sartre's ontology, the theory of being or existence, revolves around the concepts of being-in-itself, being-for-itself, and being-for-others (Stevens Chris). These concepts provide a framework for understanding the different modes of existence and consciousness.

Being-in-Itself and Being-for-Itself

Sartre distinguishes between being-in-itself and being-for-itself (Wikipedia). Being-in-itself represents unconscious, unchanging entities devoid of self-awareness, such as objects in the external world (SparkNotes). It encompasses the essence of things, defining their nature and functions (Sartre for Beginners). Being-in-itself is characterized by three key attributes: it is not caused, it is not bound by the principles of sufficient reason, and it is purely affirmative or positive (Being and Nothingness).

On the other hand, being-for-itself signifies conscious beings with the capacity for choice (Existentialism and Being). It is the realm of human consciousness, characterized by freedom and subjectivity (Existentialism and Being). Being-for-itself asserts that humans lack a predetermined nature or character, emphasizing their capacity to define themselves through their choices (Existentialism is Humanism). Human freedom, according to Sartre, emerges from the concept of non-being, allowing individuals to transcend their past and make free choices in the present moment (La Trobe).

The Significance of Being-for-Itself

Being-for-itself represents the realm of human consciousness that influences our choices (Existentialism-definition). It allows individuals to make decisions and define their existence (La Trobe). Sartre posits that consciousness enables humans to deliberate on the choices they make, giving rise to their sense of self (Existentialism-definition).


In Sartrean existentialism, being-for-others pertains to the social dimension of human existence (Wikipedia). Sartre contends that when individuals exist in relation to others, they cannot treat fellow humans as mere objects but must acknowledge them as beings (Stevens). The act of being observed by another person through the "look" leads to the formation of opinions about the observed individual ( This heightened awareness of being judged by others contributes to the negative connotations associated with being-for-others.

The Impact of Being-for-Others

Being-for-others can have significant implications for an individual's self-perception and behavior ( For instance, when someone observes us engaging in a humiliating act, we often feel compelled to define ourselves based on their perspective (Jean Paul Sartre, This scrutiny by others can lead to discomfort and a sense of being judged.

Existential Emotions: Anguish, Forlornness, and Despair

Sartre introduces three existential emotions in his philosophy: anguish, forlornness, and despair (Existentialism is Humanism). Each emotion represents a facet of the existential experience and sheds light on the challenges individuals face in navigating the complexities of existence.


Anguish, as defined by Sartre, arises when an individual realizes that they are not only choosing their own path but also shaping the destiny of all of humanity (Existentialism is Humanism). This profound responsibility becomes apparent when one confronts situations where the right course of action is unclear, and conclusive evidence is lacking (Existentialism is Humanism). Sartre uses the example of Abraham's dilemma when commanded by an angel of God to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, to illustrate the anguish of making morally weighty decisions.


Forlornness, according to Sartre, stems from the absence of God, leading to the disappearance of absolute values and an a priori Good (Existentialism is Humanism). In a world without a divine foundation for morality, individuals must grapple with the absence of preordained ethical guidelines (Existentialism is Humanism). This existential condition forces individuals to confront the challenge of defining their own values and principles.


Despair, the third existential emotion, centers on the realization that individuals cannot ultimately rely on anyone else for guidance or assurance (Existentialism is Humanism). Sartre highlights the discomfort associated with the recognition that human goodness and concern for society cannot serve as dependable anchors (Existentialism is Humanism). This existential awareness underscores the need for individuals to navigate the uncertainties of life autonomously.

Bad Faith: A Concept of Self-Deception

Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the concept of "bad faith" to characterize various forms of self-deception that deny the existence of human freedom (Wikipedia, Bad Faith and Fallenness). Bad faith occurs when individuals attempt to rationalize their actions through religion, science, or other belief systems, thereby evading the recognition of their own agency (Bad Faith and Fallenness).

Freedom and Bad Faith

Existentialists assert that individuals possess the freedom to choose and determine their goals (Wikipedia). However, the concept of freedom itself can lead to the establishment of bad faith. Sartre famously declared that humans are "condemned to be free" (Sartre's Existentialism and Human Emotions), highlighting the inescapable nature of human freedom. This existential freedom obliges individuals to continually choose and shape their identities (Sartre's Existentialism and Human Emotions).

Two Modes of Freedom in Bad Faith

According to the concept of bad faith, individuals can employ freedom in two distinct modes (Bad Faith and Fallenness). First, they may use freedom to avoid making choices, thereby evading the consequences and responsibilities that accompany their autonomy (Bad Faith and Fallenness). This mode of bad faith reflects a reluctance to confront the full implications of one's freedom. Second, individuals may be constrained by their facticity, which comprises their past experiences and circumstances (Wikipedia). Denying one's past or failing to acknowledge it is to act in accordance with bad faith (Wikipedia). In this mode, individuals limit their freedom and evade full responsibility for their choices.

Anguish and Bad Faith

Anguish, a central concept in Sartre's existentialism, is closely tied to the idea of bad faith (Existentialism as Humanism). Anguish results from the realization that one's choices carry not only personal consequences but also implications for all of humanity (Existentialism is Humanism). Bad faith allows individuals to sidestep this profound responsibility by avoiding making authentic choices (Existentialism is Humanism).

The Waiter in Bad Faith

Sartre illustrates the concept of bad faith through the example of a waiter in a cafe (Being and Nothingness). The waiter's behavior is excessively calculated, precise, and mechanical, as if he were performing a role (Being and Nothingness). His movements, gestures, and even his voice appear scripted and devoid of genuine spontaneity (Being and Nothingness). This portrayal reflects the idea that the waiter is "playing" at being a waiter in a cafe (Being and Nothingness). His actions exemplify how individuals can engage in inauthentic behaviors, aligning themselves with societal roles and expectations rather than embracing their true freedom.


Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism provides a profound exploration of human existence, emphasizing individual freedom, responsibility, and the absence of preordained purpose. Sartre's concept of existence preceding essence challenges traditional notions of human nature and highlights the pivotal role of individual choice in shaping one's destiny. Moreover, his delineation of being-in-itself, being-for-itself, and being-for-others offers a nuanced understanding of human consciousness and social interactions.

Sartre's existential emotions—anguish, forlornness, and despair—underscore the complexities individuals face in navigating the uncertainties of existence. These emotions shed light on the existential challenges associated with moral decision-making, the absence of absolute values, and the recognition of personal autonomy.

The concept of bad faith, introduced by Sartre, illuminates the various forms of self-deception that individuals employ to evade the full implications of their freedom. It underscores the tension between authentic choices and the desire to conform to societal expectations and roles.

In conclusion, Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism offers a rich and thought-provoking framework for understanding the human experience. It calls upon individuals to embrace their autonomy, confront the existential emotions that accompany it, and grapple with the complexities of moral decision-making. Sartre's work continues to inspire philosophical discourse on the nature of existence, freedom, and responsibility.

Updated: Nov 08, 2023
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Jean-Paul Sartre: An Exploration of Existentialism and Its Implications. (2016, Nov 07). Retrieved from

Jean-Paul Sartre: An Exploration of Existentialism and Its Implications essay
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