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Contemplation on Existentialism: Sartre and Heidegger

This short reflection paper aims to ponder on the discussion revolving around existentialism from Sartre’s and Heidegger’s position on it. In 1948, Sartre comes up with a counter-argument against those who reproach existentialists for many different points of views in his study of “Existentialism and Humanism”. In this study, Sartre mentioned that there are two types of existentialists as Christians and atheists. For him, both are in the same standpoint in terms of the relation of existence to essence. Putting differently, both party claims that, according to Sartre, existence precedes essence which is mentioned later in this present paper. Besides his position, Sartre put Heidegger in the latter category of existentialist in his aforesaid classification.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre (1948: 28) meant by saying existence precedes essence that “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world- and defines himself afterward.” According to this, one might assume that there is no given or presumed life that man should live. Many critiques to existentialists stem from how existentialists approached existence and essence. However, Sartre (1948: 29) responded many critiques by saying that “man is responsible of what he is” and therefore man cannot blame anyone but himself for what he did or intended.  All his responsibility depends on his own existence in this sense.

Another point to be mentioned in Sartre’s response to critics is about the abandonment which means that God left us, or even more, God even does not exist. With Sartre’s words (1948:34), “we are left alone, without excuse”. Being left beyond is not something that shaken out the world. In other words, we assume that there is someone or something who left us, and it might be a God indeed. So, we are free after we are left by God.

By the moment that we are left by Him, we are free to do what we want to do. There is no such an external force that punishes our behaviors. There is just some limitations and consequences of our actions which originate from our own existence.  With regards to this, one saying the existence of God plays an important role in Sartre’s argument would be wrong. Because man is what he is and God, in this picture, is just a God, not an essence or structure.

Approaching existentialism as humanism, as Sartre put it, might not be well-understood in certain cases by different schools of thought. On the other hand, Sartre himself made a clear explanation about why he claims that existentialism as humanism by putting human-beings into the center of everything. Putting it differently, the basis of humanism comes from the very first assumption of existentialism, which is existence precedes essence. According to this, existentialism can be treated as humanism because there is no legislator or some externalities to the man himself that save him. Instead of being saved, the one who saves himself is not a God or a legislator but himself. Therefore, Sartre uses the word existentialism as humanism in which Heidegger mainly opposed to such an idea.

Martin Heidegger

The reason for Heidegger’s counter-argument is related to how he approaches human-being and the idea of existentialism. There are many controversial issues that Heidegger was against it in Sartre’s writing. Even though Sartre claims that Heidegger is an atheist existentialist as he was, it needs to be detailed on how Heidegger reflects on Sartre’s idea of existentialism as humanism. One might argue at the beginning that Heidegger has criticized Sartre’s approach to humanism for many different reasons. Another concept that is reflected by both Sartre and Heidegger is the concept of human being. What is human-being? What is being?

One might say that Heidegger’s terminology is hard to read at first glance. However, what aims to be covered up here regarding Heidegger’s work is not to delve into his approach to phenomenology and philosophy. Rather than this, the main aim of this short reflection paper is to provide some basic background regarding his critics to Sartre by reflecting the text of “Letter on Humanism” written by Heidegger.

At the very beginning of his famous letter, Heidegger put some emphasis on what to expect from an action in terms of causing an effect. In other words, he pointed out that if something is actual, its actuality stems from its utility that alludes to creating an effect in existentialism nomenclature of Heidegger. However, Heidegger (1947: 193) reflected on this idea by saying that “…the essence of action is accomplishment”, which means “to unfold something into the fullness of its essence to lead it forth into this fullness- producere”. His contribution to this discussion is important because he attempted to conceptualize the relation of thinking about

Being to language which is a critical assessment for those who want to address his political position at that time in terms of Jewish issue more generally. Based on thereon, Heidegger used a metaphor claiming that language is viewed as the house of Being. As it is put in a way like that, Heidegger (1947:193) continued on by saying that “In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home”.

Apart from this conceptual territory, the reason why Heidegger needed to mull over and response to how Sartre approached existentialism within the confines of humanism is related to how Heidegger treated and even viewed, phenomenology and metaphysics which is obviously different than Sartre as far as we might notice by looking at their texts. It is possible to say that claiming that existence precedes essence is just to turn inside out the Platonic version of “essentia” precedes “existentia” which is still to deal with metaphysics for Heidegger.

What we also need to understand is the concept of Dasein, that might be translated as “being there”. Heidegger used the concept of Dasein while approaching the concept of human being. Regarding this, one might notice that Heidegger put some spark and the notion of time into Dasein. For Heidegger, the time has a constitutive role in his approaches to Being. For him, Being is time and time is finite. All in all, the Heidegger’s hell is more pungent than Sartre’s hell for the writer of this present paper. However, his reflection to Sartre’s position regarding existentialism gives us a brief introduction of Heidegger’s perspective.


Heidegger, M. (1947). Letter on humanism. (PDF)

Sartre, J. P. (1948). Existentialism and Humanism (1947). (PDF)

Note: For the image, thanks for The Dangerous Maybe!

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