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To what extent does Sarte effectively argue that we are free?

By StephanieKezia May 06, 2014 881 Words
“To what extent does Sartre successfully argue that we are free?” This question assumes that Sartre argues for the freedom of humans, a fair assumption, due to his theories published on existentialism in his works “Existentialism and Humanism” and “Being and Nothingness”. This question uses the phrase ‘free’ as opposed to ‘free will’, a distinction which is clear through Sartre’s theories about a human’s metaphysical freedom. During this essay I will aim to evaluate the effectiveness of Sartre’s argument that human beings are fundamentally free. I shall draw on works from other existentialists such as Heidegger, Freudian psychoanalytical theories and other philosophers such as Kant, Husserl and Nietzsche. In my opinion, Sartre prevents a logical argument that human beings are free due to our nature of self-consciousness as “beings for themselves” yet he is overly optimistic about the nature of human freedom. He rejects that we are limited by past experiences and choices; disregarding theories that humans are shaped by their genetic endowment and upbring as mere “facticity”. Personally, I see this as a huge fault in Sartre’s argument as he fails to identify the individual’s context of social, political, economic pressures and the constraints they place on one’s freedom. Sartre would argue that this is untrue and that we can reflect on our experiences and decide whether our adoption of beliefs is due to bad faith in the face of our extreme innate freedom. This innate freedom which Sartre speaks of is encapsulated in his statement that “the nature of consciousness simultaneously is to be what it is not and not to be what it is” – Being and Nothingness. By this, Sartre means that human beings do not have a specific nature that defines us and, being atheist, he denies the cosmological argument or the argument from universal causation used by various theologians and philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to St Thomas Aquinas. He argues that we don’t have a nature or essence that makes our reactions to events predictable and that we can initiate events. In this way, he says that “man is condemned to be free… he is responsible for everything he does.” – Existentialism and Humanism. This, he argues, could be the attraction to living an inauthentic where one denies one’s freedom to choose your own values and actions and we conform because we are aware of freedom as a “burden”. This is reminiscent of Hobbes and Nietzsche and these influences are why he states that “hell is other people”. A criticism of this is that Sartre is overly pessimistic of conformity: Conformity is not imposed upon us, humans are eager to comply. We learn from others, we learn language and we learn our values, it is natural for us to do. It is through this learning that we humans learn to survive and evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins would argue that this ‘conformity’ within society is a survival mechanism rather than something restricting us. For example, had an infant not used its mirror neurons to copy and learn the actions of its family then it wouldn’t be able to develop basic skills such as walking and talking, let alone develop skills such as rationality and ‘self-consciousness’. In Sartre’s argument about bad faith (in the context of free will) he presents an analogy of a waiter who tries his utmost to become his role yet Sartre emphasises that a human (a being for-itself) cannot transform itself into a being in-itself. He argues that the waiter is denying his freedom and deceiving himself about the limits of his freedom by attempting to carry out mechanical movements. Freud, a psychologist, argues that bad faith, such as the waiter’s, arises from our unconscious beliefs and their conscious denial – he comes to the conclusion that the mind is divided into the conscious and the subconscious. Sartre critiques this, arguing that his theory of existential psychoanalysis should be adopted: One that makes the individual entirely responsible for his or her choice of being. One might say that Sartre overestimates human freedom and that there are genuinely times where psychological restrictions as a result of social situation and upbringing are just that; psychologically restrictive. To answer the question, Sartre does successfully present a logical argument for the freedom of humans; an argument so well-articulated that it has had a liberating effect upon readers of his theory. Many have been inspired to make changes in their lives instead of making excuses: I personally found myself feeling as though I could do anything I wanted to, within reason, regardless of my past. However, the “within reason” is of utmost importance because there are external factors that constrain us and I do believe that they can’t merely be dismissed, as Sartre does. We cannot decide to fly home one evening, in the same way that we cannot decide to suddenly change our genes so that they don’t code for Cerebral Palsy. Our genetic make-up and experiences do play a part in who we are yet I rather like Sartre’s argument that we humans can decide, using our innate rationality and self-consciousness, to make changes in our lives. Be it an illusion or not, it is an extremely attractive argument for us humans.

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