Jean-Paul Sartre’s Concepts of Freedom & “Existential Choice” Explained in an Animated Video Narrated by Stephen Fry

The non-existence, or non-importance, of the self has for millennia been an uncontroversial proposition in Eastern thought. But Western thinkers have tended to embrace the concept of the isolated self as, if not sufficient, at least necessary for a coherent account of human life. Yet there are many ways to describe what it means to have a self—an ego, an individual identity. Is the self a product of culture, history, and economy? Is it a collection of subjective experiences to which no one else has access? Is it constituted only in relation to other selves, or in relation to an ultimate, unchanging, all-powerful Self?

For the Existentialists, the self can be a prison, a trap, and a source of great anxiety. Heidegger called selfhood a condition of being “thrown into the world.” By the time we realize where and what we are, according to restrictive categories of historical thought and language, we are already there, inescapably bound to our conditions, forced to perform roles for which we never auditioned. Jean-Paul Sartre took this notion of “thrownness” and gave it his own neurotic stamp. We are indeed tossed into existences against our will, but the real condemnation, he thought, is that once we arrive, we have to make choices. We are doomed to the task of creating ourselves, no matter how limited the options, and there is no possibility of opting out. Even not making choices is a choice.

This extreme kind of free will, as Stephen Fry explains in the short, animated video above, stems from the problem of human nature—there isn’t any. “According to Sartre, there is no design for a human being,” says Fry, or in Sartre’s famous phrase, “existence precedes essence.” There is only the absurdity of arriving in a world with no plan, no God, no universal codes or fixed standards of value: just a dizzying array of decisions to make. And yet, rather than making life trivial, the absurd condition described by Sartre lends substantial weight to all of our choices, for in making them, he claimed, we are not only creating ourselves, but deciding what a human being should be.

Illusions of certainty and necessity obscure the contingent nature of existential choice, both the true inheritance and the unremitting burden of every individual. What we become in life is up to us, Sartre thought, a proposition that causes us a good deal of anguish, since we cannot know the outcome of our choices nor understand the world in which we make them beyond our limited capacity. And yet, we must act, Sartre thought, “as if everyone is watching me.” This is not a pleasing thought, even if, for many, the idea might actually lead to more careful, sober, and deliberative decision-making—that is, when it doesn’t lead to paralyzing dread.

Related Content:

A Crash Course in Existentialism: A Short Introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre & Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World

What Is an “Existential Crisis”?: An Animated Video Explains What the Expression Really Means

Existential Philosophy of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus Explained with 8-Bit Video Games

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Maxim Gurnemanz says:

    Life is a test. It is only a test. If this had been your actual life you would have been given better instructions.

  • Mick says:

    “…we are not only creating ourselves, but deciding what a human being should be.”

    “…we must act, Sartre thought, “as if everyone is watching me.”

    It would be good to see a short summary on why these two features of Sartre’s thought can’t simply be ignored/dispensed with.

    But, to me, it looks like a re-framing of the benefits that our social nature brings us. If we all acted with consideration only for our own needs, there would be no civilization, most of us wouldn’t survive on our own, and those who did would be required to expend most of our energy and time to do so. This is the basis of morality: weighing the needs of the one vs. the needs of the many. Thus, we are often trying to figure out what the “right” thing is to do, and continually providing a model to others as to what that right thing is. If we look around us, and everybody is out to get rich, despite what that does to the environment that we all share, and to others we share the world with, then that’s what more of us will do.

    So, morality helps the greater number of us. We act as we think others should act because it benefits more people AND our survival ultimately depends on it.

  • Mirza says:

    If there is no human nature, and this is causing us anguish, then where did that anguish come from?

  • Nasrin says:

    when evaluating what existentialism declares, it’s important to keep the time and place of the evolution of this philosophy in mind . After centuries of heavy belief that we are here on the order of the almighty, the advancement of science and the declaration of Nietzsche that “God is dead” both freed and burdened the human being to come up with an alternative for God and that’s when different existentialists offered slightly different ideas based on this point of evolution.
    At this point human beings, or at least the western ones, felt both free and obligated at the same time to give meaning to their own lives or another words to create themselves in the absence of God.

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