Thought Experiment Myth of Sisyphus
Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine you angered the Notre Dame administrative overlords. As punishment, OCS sentences you to roll a massive boulder up a mountain every single day for eternity. Just before you reach the top, the boulder comes crashing down and reaches the very bottom. Then you have to start over. And over. And no one can help — you must finish this task in complete isolation. There is no other purpose for pushing the boulder: it doesn't power anything or entertain anyone. From the standpoint of the universe, your mineral management is meaningless.
Now, imagine how you personally would react to your situation. What would you do? What story would you tell yourself?
Maybe you would become a massive fan of rolling stones, throwing yourself wholeheartedly into the work. Maybe you’d keep hoping the boulder wouldn’t fall. Or maybe you’d just rage at the senselessness of it all. Maybe you are raging at the thought experiment itself —those self-indulgent philosophers have their heads in the clouds again. Rocks don’t matter!
If Sisyphus has you thinking about how you react to the absurd situations and ideas that life throws at you, then you’re already thinking like an existentialist. Existentialism is a style of philosophy. If virtue ethicists like Aristotle look toward objective functions to understand the purpose of things and lives, existentialists think human purpose is generated from choices. In this digital essay, we will begin by explaining what existentialism is, and then we will meet two key existentialists: Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin. By the end of this essay, you will be able to explain the key tenets of their unique takes on existentialism.
This thought experiment is adapted from an ancient Greek myth, which describes King Sisyphus facing a similar predicament. Albert Camus, a French novelist who will reappear later in this essay, repopularized this myth in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Although Camus originally wrote the story to distance himself from existentialist thought, the story successfully outlines the problem existentialists face.
Key Principle What is Existentialism?
Some philosophical schools are united by a common principle they believe to be true. Theists believe that God exists. Aristotelians believe that good actions require good habits. Nihilists believe that nothing matters.
Existentialism does not agree on a set of statements like other major philosophies do. Instead, it is better thought of as a characteristic style or attitude about the role of philosophy in life. Here are some clues for spotting an existentialist:
- A focus on individualism rather than attachment to a group. (See, this is what makes it hard to define! As soon as the existentialist club forms, members feel the urge to quit.)
- Challenging “commonsense” assumptions about the meaning of life. (A lot of the assumptions these philosophers challenge are in response to our old friend Aristotle.)
- Encouraging authentic responses to the world and the commitment to being responsible for your life. (Existentialists champion virtues like courage, creativity, originality, and authenticity.)
Here’s an analogy. Aristotle and the ancient Greeks are like classical music — they seek order and patterns, and achievements are set by key examples (i.e. Mozart). The existentialists are your indie artists or avant-garde jazz musicians. A lot of them think Philosophy, Inc. is for sell–outs. They pride themselves on thinking outside the box and breaking the rules. And just like how indie music can be broken down further into indie pop, indie rock, etc., existentialist philosophies take on a variety of different sub-genres.
Varieties of Existentialism
The diverse collection of voices within existentialist thinking gestures at a larger point: questions of purpose, anguish, dread, and freedom emerge from many different human experiences. For example, the experience of World War II gives rise to a different kind of existentialism than the experience of racism in 1960s America. It is helpful to know a bit about the life a particular existentialist led to understand his or her philosophy. So let’s consider two key existentialists: Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin.
Connection Meet the Existentialists
Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris in 1905. He lost his father at an early age and was raised by his mother and grandfather. He went on to attend a prestigious Parisian university, where he met Simone de Beauvoir. These two were lifelong partners and philosophy soul mates. He was drafted for World War II in 1939, taken as prisoner in 1940, and released in 1941. After the war, Sartre took a particular interest in freedom and social responsibility. This led him to publish his pamphlet “Existentialism is a Humanism” in 1946. We will be exploring excerpts from this piece in this interactive essay.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He was the grandson of a slave and grew up in poverty. Desperate for an escape from his situation, he soon discovered his passion for writing. In 1948, when he was just 24 years old, Baldwin decided to leave America for Paris. Once there, Baldwin hoped the physical distance would allow him to write more clearly about racism and the black American experience. He returned to America in 1963 to support the civil rights movement. That same year, his essay “Letter From a Region in My Mind” was published in the New Yorker. We will be exploring excerpts from this piece in this interactive essay.
Together in Paris
Sartre and Baldwin most likely met each other at some point. They were both part of the lively Parisian cafe scene. Other famous intellectuals, including Richard Wright, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus were also part of this scene. The term “existentialist” became synonymous with party animal during this time due to a culture of experimentation and individualism. Still, Paris was a much lonelier place for Baldwin (an immigrant) than it was for Sartre (a local). Baldwin wasn’t a huge fan of Sartre, either, and you might understand why when we compare the two philosophies.
Argument Sartre’s Existentialism
Jean-Paul Sartre wanted to challenge how we think about our purpose in the world. He was interested in the question: why am I here? In his 1946 essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” he begins by asking: what are human beings? (Does this remind you of last week? Aristotle tried to answer the same question on his quest for meaning).
He begins his essay by describing what a human being is not. For instance, we are radically different from a paperknife (aka letter opener):
If one considers an article of manufacture as, for example, a book or a paperknife – one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it; and he has paid attention, equally, to the conception of a paper-knife and to the preexistent technique of production which is a part of that conception and is, at bottom, a formula. Thus the paper-knife is at the same time an article producible in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what it was for. Let us say, then, of the paperknife that its essence – that is to say the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible – precedes its existence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or book is thus determined before my eyes. Here, then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint, and we can say that production precedes existence.
For Sartre, an essence is an object’s purpose. Existence is the creation of an object. An artisan knows what a paperknife is used for, or its essence. This means that before the artisan even creates the paperknife, or before it exists, they have assigned an essence to the paperknife. Sartre concludes that for objects: essence precedes existence. But it is different with people.
What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.
Sartre thinks religious folks think of God like a superior artisan crafting humans. If this is the case, we can say God assigned us a purpose and then created us (just like the paperknife). But Sartre doesn’t believe there is a God. And once he takes God out of the picture, he concludes that humans were created without a pre–assigned purpose. The only way we can have a purpose, or an essence, is if we decide it for ourselves. To Sartre, we are more like self–aware pieces of clay without an artist that planned to use us for something. This means we must decide what to mold ourselves into.
Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be.
So, what are human beings? We are special because, unlike anything else, we can give ourselves our own purposes. First you exist, next you decide your essence, and then you and your essence exist.
How does this view of purpose compare with Aristotle’s?
Recall that Aristotle also used knife imagery to talk about the purpose of human beings in the Function Argument. For him, a good knife is one that fulfills its purpose (a sharp knife!). and a good human is someone who lives as a rational animal to the best of their ability. As you continue reading through Sartre, see if you can pick up on the difference in Sartre’s use of the knife. How does he relate the knife image to human beings? Why does he think humans are different from knives?
Existence Precedes Essence
Your essence is something absolutely central to you. Without it, you would cease to exist. Aristotle thought our essence as humans is to be rational animals––this essence tells us what we are supposed to be, what our goal is. Other properties you have, like being tall and having a knack for crossword puzzles, are not essential. That’s just how it is.
You are born, but there is no set goal for what you are supposed to grow into. To go a step further: YOU get to choose your essence. So, in theory, an existentialist could reject the notion that she is supposed to be rational. An existentialist could work on not being an animal.
Now you are alive! In the world! Aristotle thinks this is the time for you to work on becoming the best rational animal you can be. That’s what it means to be a good human.
The existentialist is thrilled that you are alive too, because existence is of the utmost importance: it’s where you get to decide your essence. This is the time to question the norms around you, or even dare to imagine yourself as something that breaks the pattern (“I reject rationality,” “I reject the gender or race being assigned to me,” “I could be a computer”)
Essence Comes First
God (or the greek gods or natural laws) endow you with the capacities of a rational animal. You live in the world and hone these skills as a math teacher. You surround yourself with other virtuous friends and learn from them. You start to grasp a vision for what an excellent mathematician is, and that guides you in life. (This is Aristotle’s vision.)
Existence Comes First
You are born with no innate purpose. You live in the world, learn, think, object, and create. You decide that you want to teach math, but you strive to do it in a creative and authentic way. You invent the model of a math teacher, a model which you hope other people will riff on and resist. (An existentialist might say this.)
Thought Experiment Sartre on Moral Choices
Another important way Sartre differs from Aristotle is in answering the question: how do I know if I’m making a moral choice (aka doing the right thing)? Recall that Aristotle suggests considering if your virtuous friends would do the same thing you’re about to do.
Sartre answers this question with a thought experiment based on one of his students: It is World War II. You are a French youth considering joining the military in order to avenge your brother who was killed by the German offensive. You want to join the cause. The catch? Your mother, who relies on you as a source of love (and who recently lost her other son), would be left at home alone. If you enlist, you risk dying or losing yourself within the group identity of the military. If you stay home with your mother you help her directly, but forego the chance to be part of the greater movement. What should you do?
Sartre argues: there is no right or moral answer to the puzzle. The same way there's no pre-destined essence for you, there's also no choice you're ever obliged to make. What you choose will inform your moral character, but not until you actually ~do~ the thing you decide. All that matters, in the end, is that you take responsibility for the choice you make.
Objection Three Objections to Sartre's Existentialism
Sartre is issuing a challenge to the virtue ethicists -- what evidence do we have that the good life is “essentialist” rather than “existentialist.” There are at least three objections essentialists might raise in response:
- The Nihilist Threat: The existentialist asks you to create your own meaning in your life. But what if you can’t find it? Does that mean life really is meaningless? Nihilism is the view that life is meaningless and not “worth” living. Can existentialism avoid nihilism?
- The DIY Morality Problem: The radical ability to choose championed by existential thinking could lead everyone to make up their own moral code. Imagine a world like that, without agreed upon rules that promote the common good. Some people create meaning in their life by serving the poor. Others spend all of their time smoking clove cigarettes in cafes. Others spend their days kicking puppies and bullying children. Clearly some lives are better than others, and we should want conformity with moral norms, right?
- Too Much Individualism?: So much of the good life involves a sense of belonging, including a sense of belonging that comes from shared experiences and histories. If we identify ourselves more as individuals and avoid groups, these important connections and experiences also lose their value
We will now return to Sartre's essay to examine where he addresses these problems.
Sartre's Response to Objection (1)
The trick to addressing the nihilist problem is to ask, why do existentialists go on?
The meaningless of life might prompt humans to wonder why life is worth living. Sartre responds with a message of duty and responsibility.
If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself... I may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry – but in such a case what is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders...
When humans realize that their actions are responsible for who they become, there is a deep sense of responsibility for creating a meaningful life. Sartre might argue that this responsibility to create yourself, that might be incentive enough to go on.
Sartre's Response to Objection (2)
In addressing the DIY Morality problem, Sartre extends responsibility of yourself to responsibility for all people:
...And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men...If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole… my action is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind. Or if, to take a more personal case, I decide to marry and to have children, even though this decision proceeds simply from my situation, from my passion or my desire, I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy.
Sartre explains how our duty extends outwardly to those we love and those we don't even know. The lives we invent become models for others, and jointly we create purpose for our lives together (think of the indie music group analogy again).
Sartre’s Response to Objection (3)
Sartre’s existentialism emphasizes originality, breaking with tradition, and challenging pressures to conform to groups or history. He would just deny this is an objection -- the point of philosophy is to develop your sense of yourself as an individual. Black existentialists, however, center their approach around this objection, and in particular the importance of creating meaning out of shared historical and social experiences.
Black existentialism focuses on finding the meaning of life as a collective. These philosophers argue that there are many instances where we are prevented from living our lives as individuals. For example, black Americans are often treated by society as one homogenous group. For this reason, these philosophers think about what it really means to be free in society and challenge mainstream notions in philosophy about choice and freedom. This branch of existentialism provides a method for interpreting the philosophies of writers like James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ralph Ellison. James Baldwin will be our case study here.
Argument Baldwin on Death
Like Sartre, Baldwin also wanted to understand what it means to be human. More specifically, he was interested in the question: what does it mean to be a black person in America? In his 1963 essay “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin reveals how he became a preacher and later decided to leave the Christian church. He considers how contemplating the meaning of black existence is different from white existence:
The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why?
When Baldwin considers existence, he runs into a very different problem than Sartre does. Instead of asking the purpose of humanity, Baldwin must confront the privilege that comes with existence. In other words, why does there seem to be a purpose for white existence, but not black existence? Later in the essay, he explains why this question is so important:
Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
For Baldwin, the black experience in America holds the key to understanding human life. He argues that ignoring black Americans isn’t just immoral; it makes people of other racial backgrounds, but especially white people, miss out on a key aspect of the good life.
Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality—the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.
So, what is a human being for Baldwin? A human being is someone who dies, and who knows they are going to die. Racism, which brings with it suffering and death, forces black Americans to understand this fact much more acutely.
Remember that existentialists like to challenge assumptions we make about a fixed meaning of life? Baldwin claims we aren’t aiming to live the good life; we’re trying to live the tragic life. This is how Baldwin deals with the individualism objection we raised earlier. His definition of what it means to be human relies on a collective experience: death.
Doesn’t the nihilist objection especially apply to Baldwin? Who cares about life if we’re all going to die?
It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.
Baldwin thinks that we already have experience not existing: before we were born. We need to value this life because it rescues us from the darkness of nonexistence. Baldwin does not try to say life has no meaning or that we can make it mean something. Instead, he admits that life is a conundrum. But it is one we want to embrace.
Objection The “Unity Problem”
In 1968, philosophy professor Paul Weiss raised an objection to Baldwin’s thinking. We will call this objection, The “Unity Problem.” In the following clip, Professor Weiss asks: why are we focusing on black versus white men? Why should we focus on race, when there are other ways of connecting men?
Notice how Weiss advocates for viewing life as an individual problem? Notice how Baldwin instantly brings up death? Baldwin responds to this objection from Weiss by pointing out that he cannot ignore his black identity: society reminds him of his blackness at every turn. So while others may be able to ignore race as a part of their existence, he simply does not have the choice. If we return to “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” however, we will see that he makes an even stronger response to this objection.
Argument Baldwin on Love
Weiss’s objection wonders if focusing on race is arbitrary and divisive. Baldwin answers that he has no other choice but to focus on race. In his writing, he considers how race and the fact of death can actually lead to unity. It is at this point in his essay that Baldwin comes to his unique understanding of love.
“… a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
Baldwin’s optimism resides in love, which is not a fleeting feeling, but the difficult process of white people facing up to the reality of their own shame and engaging authentically with black people. There is a call for a relationship between people, not a vision of a world full of loners.
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.
By illuminating our racial identities, Baldwin isn’t being divisive. By bringing up death, Baldwin isn’t feeding nihilism. He finds that by contemplating these hard subjects, we will learn who we really are. In this sense, Baldwin recognizes there is more to being human than just knowing that we die. The only way we can understand our identity in a deeper way is by doing the hard work and being vulnerable with one another.
Aristotle said the good life is surrounding yourself with people who seem virtuous and becoming a rational animal. Sartre says there is no good life, there is just life. You can become whatever you want by yourself: a woman, a computer, etc. Baldwin says the tragic life is loving everyone who surrounds you. When you do that, you just might learn who you should become.
This digital essay was prepared by Mia Lecinski and Margaret McGreevy.