Monday, September 29, 2008

Sartre and free will…

I just finished working through a portion of Jean Paul Sartre's first chapter entitled, Existentialism. It was assigned reading for one of my sociology classes. Sartre makes some interesting claims about reality and human action. He contends with a common perspective. The idea that, "Circumstances are against me. What I've been and done doesn't show my true worth…there remains within me, unused and quite viable, a host of propensities, inclinations, possibilities, that one wouldn't guess from the mere series of things I've done," is the only way people can bear their own wretchedness. In other words it's an excuse. And further more, "dreams, expectations, and hopes warrant no more than to define a man as a disappointed dream, as miscarried hopes, as vain expectations."

So basically we are what we do. We change what we do and we change who we are. Yet in that he states that the only way to put any value on what we do is through the process of others evaluating our actions. We can only be famous, for instance, as others define our actions as worthy of fame and recognize us in that way. But that is certainly not how individual actions are most often perceived. We usually consider that personal qualities like honour, happiness or compassion are intrinsic to human nature in some essential way. We often use the phrase, 'human nature' to talk about some essential element of the experience of self that is somehow universal to all human experience. Sartre would argue that that notion is flawed since it is defined in the interaction that we have with others. So Sartre advocates the idea that people exist first then they act and then they are attributed with essence or qualities. This is so clearly evident at funerals. We have a hard time talking about the qualities of a person without describing his/her actions as proof. So for Sartre free will looks like a blank slate upon which we act and as a series of informed, scheduled and defined actions that we can arrange in such a way as to construct the identity we desire.


My question then is – is that really free will? If the actions that I perform are what defines who I am and if those actions are under the evaluation and definition of others is the act of arranging my actions actually freedom or is it actually a type of inescapable coercion.


What then of the Christian notion of free will? Are we actually free to choose for or against God? Is this the sort of thing that the Scripture talks about when it suggests that slavery isn't optional but that the master is the only choice we have (Luke 16, Romans 7)?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

“Yet in that he states that the only way to put any value on what we do is through the process of others evaluating our actions.” I suppose this is one way to choose a standard of value. I don’t believe it is the only standard. One may choose actions that they consider valuable because a certain religion demands those actions. Using the standard of one’s own life a person may choose one action over another. Such as should I drive my car 200km an hour through the Rockies? No probably, not since I kind of value being alive and such an action would increase my probability of losing that value. I am not sure if this responds to the question(s) being raised in your post. I am having a hard time following your thoughts. I do not understand the argument for determinism. It is a self defeating argument much like the argument that humans cannot know reality. If humans cannot know what exists in reality then how can they know that they can’t know. IF everything is determined by chemicals in your brain then how can one have knowledge of everything being determined? Your knowledge of your actions being determined by other causes than your free will would just be a result of a certain combination of chemicals rather than your perception of reality and the logical steps that might have lead you to that conclusion. -jc

Outgoing... said...

i apologize for the jumbled nature of my thoughts. its part of the process of working stuff through. To be perfectly clear I do not know if I totally understand Sartre's argument in this passage. Sartre it seems from my limited knowledge moves to a much more deterministic perspective later on in his writing but here he seems pretty much against it. yet he includes this bit about only being able to discover ourselves in the interaction with others (intersubjectivity).
Let me pick up on your example though (driving 200 kms/hour) and poke around to see if I am picking up what you are 'laying down'...
Is there something intrinsic about being alive that causes you to consider that being alive is valuable? I mean obviously several values must be at play in your decision to drive that fast (how valuable is fuel? how valuable is the feeling of speed in your journey? how valuable is your desire to arrive at a certain location at a certain time? etc.) Yet somehow your evaluation of the importance of your life and the potential risk exposed to it seems to win out. so how do you determine the value of your life -something it woudl seem you might need to do before you can weigh that value against the others. Is that value somehow intrinsic (a priori)?

jc said...

I was merely pointing out there are other standards which to measure the value of an action... as opposed to Sartre's assertion that we place value on on our actions depending on what other's think. As to using your life as a standard of value first one has to choose to live. Then one will have to develop values in which they believe will promote them living. I suppose if someone wished to live a long time then they would choose some values that would uphold some long term goals as opposed to a short term goal of getting somewhere fast at a very dangerous speed which would obviously contradict a long term goal of living for a few more years. Or use the standard of religion. Perhaps you believe your religion does not allow you to eat during the daylight hours during Ramadan. All of your friends and coworkers do not share your religion and they attempt to convince you that eating at anytime can only be a good thing.

No I don't think that values are intrinsic. I think they are objective. Intrinsic according to Wikipedia "denotes a characteristic or property of some thing or action which is essential and specific to that thing or action, and which is wholly independent of any other object, action or consequence." Value presupposes a Valuer and the intrinsic theory of values discards this fact. One must ask of value to whom and for what and by what standard is something to be considered valuable.

Anonymous said...

hello, I believe the article you read was "Existentialism is a Humanism", an article Sartre wrote to clarify, but not prove, the basics of Existentialism. If you want to know Sartre's actual argument for freedom you have to turn to Being and Nothingness, specifically around the section on the Origin of Nothingness. Before you critique his emphasis on human freedom, you need to become familiar with his argument. It's incredibly complex but if you take the time to understand it, I think you'll find it quite convincing. I would like to state his argument here but it's so easy to misunderstand that I suggest you go read it for yourself.

All the best!