Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Everything has been figured out, except how to live. One always dies too soon or too late. And yet, life is there, finished. The line is drawn, and it must all be added up. You are nothing other than your life. There is only one day left, always starting over. It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk. We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are, that is the fact. When you live alone you no longer know what it is to tell a story: the plausible disappears at the same time as the friends. You let events flow by too.Suddenly you see people appear who speak and then go away; you plunge into stories of which you can't make head or tail. You'd make a terrible witness. It is true that people who live in society have learned how to see themselves in mirrors as they appear to their friends. Luckily, I only have a few...

Dr Shaw is a lecturer in Further Education at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk. She also offers philosophy courses at the School of Continuing Education, Lifelong learning, at the University of Liverpool. In 2015, she has completed her Doctorate in philosophy with a focus on existentialism, the equilibrium doctrine and narrative. She has worked as a teacher of English and Comparative literature and Philosophy at The American University in Cairo, Egypt where she also obtained her BA (Hons). Dr Shaw has an MA in Philosophy and Literature from the University of East Anglia where she also taught on a number of humanities subjects. Whilst working in North Wales in Further education, she gained a PGCE aimed at teaching in FE and HE sectors. Dr Shaw moved to Liverpool in 2010 where she now resides.

Interests: Existentialism, Narrative, Comparative Literature, Feminist Thought, Public Speaking, Arab Existentialism, Philosophy of Education, Art, Music, Film and Theatre, Greek Mythology, Existential counsellor and psychotherapist.


Monday, 30 May 2011

The Unavoidability of Choice & the Call of Freedom


At a time where Paris was under attack during WWII, the active resistance movement flourished encouraging everyone to react. Newspapers and other media mediums were ideal for scholars to voice their feeling about the war.

Some criticised the denunciations of fellow Frenchmen for their cowardice, hypocrisy and collaboration.

Others believed that every individual was unable to avoid making excuses. R. Solomon stated that responses to the war varied from one person to the other. He said some claimed:

“What can I do?” which shows individual omnipotence. Others said I didn’t start the war showing personal innocence. Some just followed the herd mentality and claimed, “Everyone is doing it” and joined the war. But still a few were concerned with their self-interest and claimed that they are just looking out for themselves in those hard times. Others who appealed to helplessness claimed that they had no choice- hence giving in to the herd mentality pressure, while others who appealed to human emotions blamed it on fear.

J.P Sartre had a different view on all this. He simply answered the crowds by saying that man is absolutely free.

But... What kind of freedom did Sartre really mean?

What Sartre calls to be an “ Absolute” freedom is one that does not mean that we are free to do anything we want. He claims that there are no constraints on consciousness as we always have a choice that is unlimited; hence our behaviour is not determined by our emotions.

However, it seems that our facticity limits us as human beings in a way that it may affect or even alter our life projects although our transcendence is our freedom. When we confuse our facticity for transcendence we have bad faith (Mauvaise foi). This is a form of self-deception where the question of “who one is” – is under investigation.

Sartre gives these examples: Parisian waiter, Nazi soldier and hesitant homosexual.

Hence, what one is- is a product of one’s choices and actions- the manner of one’s existence in the world. One is free to create oneself and is responsible for his choices and actions and what he has created in the world. Furthermore, Satre claims that those choices have a universal import- meaning that in choosing for oneself, one also chooses for humanity. This leads one to anguish and despair because we feel that we are entirely responsible.

It seems that our freedom is evident in situations and that our emotions are also choices. In Sartre’s essay “Une esquisse d’une theorie des emotions”, Sartre says that emotions are not mere physiological disturbances but more of coping strategies for coping with the difficult world. One for example chooses to faint to escape an intolerable situation. Hence, emotions have a pre-reflective nature.

The way that human beings cope with freedom that is limited by one’s facticity is feeling an existential anguish, which is a response to the burden of responsibility.

It is worthy to ask the question of how can one be free when one is necessarily influenced by how other people view one’s actions and behaviour. Being for others means that one is objectified according to the judgment of others, hence this create another limitation on one’s freedom of actions or even hinders one from doing what he/she wanted to do simply due to the fear of other’s judgement.

Sartre’s philosophy of action therefore states that everyone has a plan of being, a pattern of choosing and desiring things in the world. How much can a person actually be determined by his long-term goals- or future projects? In a way one could argue that one’s future plans are limiting one’s present choices rather than be a reason for one’s expression of one’s freedom. For example, if I want to complete my PHD, I am not going to go out everyday and get drunk for example or for me to get the job I want, I have to do certain things at the present and undertake certain projects to achieve that. I am not hence free anymore to do what I want, but rather my freedom is limited by my factiticy in the present, by my plans in the future and by my fear of others judgements along the way.

Sartre suggests that our freedom is manifested in our plan and projects. He calls this “our original project/choice” This is the future project that directs our life and all our actions in the present are milestones towards an ultimate goal that shapes our existence.

Through our life experiences we feel anguish and despair, but can one claim that he/she don’t feel any of them? Sartre I believe would say that one could mask the feeling of anguish to feel from it. So freedom as a notion can be either accepted as a freedom of choice – even with the absurdity of choice- or one can realise and accept that this choice is not totally free in the sense of the word that one would like it to be. Sartre says that to do the former, one would live authentically.

If one however pretends that there is no choice and that we cannot help being in the situation we are, then one will start blaming his misfortunes on environment, genetics… etc which Sartre would say then that we will be living in bad faith.

It is becoming more apparent in today’s day and age that if Sartre were alive he would have accused almost everyone of bad faith. One can not take reasonability of one’s action and pretend that these actions are the results of all external factors likes genetics, human nature, actions of others and various environmental factors. So why is it bad if we live in bad faith? One person could claim that nothing will be moral or immoral in this situation, but rather relative to one’s person’s choices.

Sartre claims that there is nothing stopping one from deciding to ignore his anguish and live in bad faith. He shows various scenarios which bad faith seemed to be the norm in such a relation. Although it is a form of self -deception and dishonesty, one is still free to live in bad faith.

From the day that a person is born, he is exposed to external factors that influence is choices in life. What he learns and acquires while growing up shape his personality and some may wonder if a person is actually an outcome of his/her parents, education system, peers, or even the media.

So freedom and responsibility therefore is one’s ability to transcend this freedom and become capable of making own choices and honouring the original plan, which he/she made.

Whether one is really convinced that Sartre’s description of human freedom is enough for human beings to consider as “freedom” or not, is still a question unresolved.

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