Existentialism and the absensce of free will



One of the most famous doctrines of existentialism formulated by Jean Paul Sartre is that we are absolutely free.

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. (J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness)

This seems to contradict modern notions of the absence of free will, at least when Sartre's doctrine is interpreted metaphysically. However, existentialism still seems useful to me as a form of "life philosophy". It seems to me that the recognition of the absence of free will is good, especially in policy making, but that we, as individuals, must still lead our lives as if we have free will.

My question is: has anyone "merged" existentialist thought with the idea of absence of free will?


Posted 2013-07-10T19:24:04.437

Reputation: 2 356

1--It strikes me that Nietzsche might not be the worst place to go here... :) – Joseph Weissman – 2013-07-10T20:17:54.873

@JosephWeissman You are right. I actually was looking for philosophers who came after Sartre and thus simply overlooked that there was this "synthesis" of existentialism and idea of the absence of free will before Sartre. Thank you for your suggestion. – Ben – 2013-07-10T20:50:35.830



Has anyone "merged" existentialist thought with the idea of absence of free will?

Yes, Sartre.

Sartre was a Marxist and he took up positions close to those of the Communist Party, though Marxist determinism was not easy to reconcile with the absolute libertarianism that was the keynote of existentialism. In an effort to resolve this tension he wrote a Critique of Dialectical Reason in 1960. It was difficult to reconcile his emphasis on the individual with Marxism's emphasis on the group, his assertion of human freedom with Marxism s assertion of determinism, his conviction that our fundamental problems are existential and therefore irradicable, that is, they arise from our human nature with Marxism’s view that they are socioeconomic and therefore that if the modes of production and exchange are sufficiently altered a utopia on earth is possible.

Critique of Dialectical Reason is the product of a later stage in Sartre's thinking. It puts forward a revision of Existentialism, and an interpretation of Marxism as a contemporary philosophy par excellence, one that can be criticized only from a reactionary pre-Marxist standpoint. Conscious human acts are not projections of freedom that produce human 'temporality', but movements toward 'totalization', their sense being co-determined by existing social conditions. People are thus neither absolutely free to determine the meaning of their acts nor slaves to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Social life does not consist only of individual acts rooted in freedom, since it is also a sedimentation of history by which we are limited and a fight with nature, which imposes further obstacles and causes social relationships to be dominated by scarcity. Every satisfaction of a need can cause antagonism and make it more difficult for people to accept each other as human beings. Scarcity deprives people of the ability to make particular choices and diminishes their humanity. Communism will restore the freedom of the individual and his ability to recognize the freedom of others.

Leszek Kołakowski believes that the Critique of Dialectical Reason represents an abandonment of Sartre's original Existentialism, and depicts Marxism as "invincible", something he finds absurd. Kołakowski criticizes Sartre for failing to explain how Communism could restore freedom. In his view, Sartre gives such a generalized account of revolutionary organization that he ignores the real difficulties of groups engaging in common action without infringing the freedom of their individual members. Kołakowski criticizes Sartre for introducing many superfluous neologisms, writing that aside from these it does not contain a genuinely new interpretation of Marxism. According to Kołakowski, neither Sartre's view that freedom must be safeguarded in revolutionary organization nor his view that there will be perfect freedom when Communism has abolished shortages is new in a Marxist context, and Sartre fails to explain how either could have been brought about.

Another one is Nietzsche. (Wellspring of Existentialism)

Nietzsche is in some sense a free will skeptic, but he is also opposed to the thesis of determinism and the concept of an “unfree will” too:

[…] Suppose someone sees through the boorish naivete of this famous concept of "free will" and manages to get it out of his mind; I would then ask him to carry his "enlightenment" a step further and to rid his mind of the reversal of this misconceived concept of "free will": I mean the "un-free will," which is basically an abuse of cause and effect. We should not erroneously objectify "cause" and "effect" like the natural scientists do (and whoever else thinks naturalistically these days -) in accordance with the dominant mechanistic stupidity which would have the cause push and shove until it "effects" something;we should use "cause" and "effect" only as pure concepts, which is to say as conventional fictions for the purpose of description and communication, not explanation. In the "in-itself" there is nothing like "causal association," "necessity," or "psychological un-freedom." There, the "effect" does not follow "from the cause," there is no rule of "law." We are the ones who invented causation, succession, for-each-other, relativity, compulsion, numbers, law, freedom, grounds, purpose; and if we project and inscribe this symbol world onto things as an "in-itself," then this is the way we have always done things, namely mythologically. The "un-free will" is mythology; in real life it is only a matter of strong and weak wills. It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in a thinker when he senses some compulsion, need, having-to-follow, pressure, unfreedom in every "causal connection" and "psychological necessity."[...]

Beyond Good and Evil §21


Posted 2013-07-10T19:24:04.437

Reputation: 3 058

(I asked a question about what Nietzsche was getting at, but I think I figured it out while asking the question.) – Rex Kerr – 2013-07-11T16:53:26.643

Great answer. I always found Nietzsche to be way more of a humanist than people gave him credit for. – dgo – 2014-01-25T22:22:09.337


The absence of free will is strictly incompatible with existentialism. There does not exist any modern notion about a such absence because consciousness is a metaphysical entity of which neuroscience has no clue by definition of its field. In fact freedom of will are nor provable nor refutable scientifically and so is its absence. Policy making accepts that people be not fully responsible of their acts for reasons that has nothing to do with the absence of free will but with the theory of options and choice.


Posted 2013-07-10T19:24:04.437

Reputation: 31