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A Polylogue on Humanism

By Nelson Whiting
Phil 4150

What is humanism? What is existentialism and how does it relate to humanism? These
questions will be dealt with and related to metaphysics in light of the European philosophical traditions
of Sartre, Heidegger and Derrida. Their texts, Existentialism is a Humanism, Letter on Humanism, and
The Ends of Man, respectively, will be summarized and compared. Sartres conception of humanism will
be considered first, and his argument that existentialism is a humanism. Then we will look at
Heideggers rejection of Sartres characterization of humanism, and his attempt to restore sense to the
notion of humanism. Then we will address the concern that Derrida further troubles both the notion of
humanism, and the analyses offered by Sartre and Heidegger. This polylogue on humanism will be
summarized and analyzed.
In response to misconceptions and charges brought against existentialism by Christians and
Marxists, Sartre gave his 1946 Lecture to reaffirm that existentialism does elevate man and thus can be
labeled a humanism. the word humanism has two very different meanings (EH, 51). Sartre makes
this statement in response to the accusations that he has contradicted himself in his writings.
Specifically, that he has stated that existentialism is a form of humanism (EH, 51). He clarifies the two
meanings and sides with only one. The first meaning, he says, is that which says man is an end and
supreme value. The fault in this view, to Sartre, is that it erroneously presupposes that we can assign a
value to man based on the most admirable deeds of certain men (EH, 52). And of course, he follows it
up with, But that kind of humanism is absurd (EH, 52). This is absurd to Sartre because he does not
believe in mans ability to pronounce judgment on mankind. The humanism that Sartre desires to live is
the existentialist version, that which disallows the passing of that sort of judgment. Mankind, in this
existential humanist view, cannot be considered as an end, because man in constantly in the making
(EH, 52). Following the faulty definition of humanism leads man to worship humanity, which to Sartre is
bad faith.
The second meaning, and the correct for Sartre, is this: man is always outside of himself, and it
is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that man is realized; and on the other hand, it is in
pursuing transcendent goals that he is able to exist (EH, 52). But to Sartre this transcendence does not
take man to another realm or some other-worldly aspirations. This transcendence is man, and does
not lie outside him, though it is beyond him. Man is the focus of this transcendence because there is no
other universe that exists anywhere, only this one, the human one. This view says we should not be
focused on Gods transcendence, but in the sense that man passes beyond himself (EH, 53). The link
between this idea and the idea that man is always only present in a human universe (subjectivity) is
what Sartre calls existentialist humanism.
To more fully understand Sartres humanism, a brief yet in-depth attempt at understanding his
existentialism must be made. In the same discourse as above, Sartre says existentialism is a doctrine
that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment
and a human subjectivity (EH, 18). He argues that all of the accusations against existentialism, that it
over-stresses the dark side of human life, that it says life is despicable and sordid, that it is too
pessimistic, all miss the point. He says the truth is that most people, if they look deeper within
themselves, will see that what they are really annoyed about is not its pessimism, but rather its
optimism (EH, 19, 38). What all the existentialist views have in common, is their belief that existence
precedes essence (EH, 20).
This is a crux of Sartres argument because if this is true, then man first exists; he materialized
in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself If man cannot be defined, it is
because to begin with hi is nothing (EH, 22). This idea also blends well with his later statement that
attempting to define mans essence is futile, where we should rather be attempting to define mans
condition (EH, 42). This condition, for Sartre, is one in which man can and does conceive of himself as
something, then wills himself to be that something, and since he conceives of himself only after he
exists, just as he wills himself to be after being thrown into existence, man is nothing other than what he
makes of himself (EH, 22). Such must be stated because without an understanding of this, Sartres first
principle of existentialism, one cannot understand the effect of that first principle. That effect is that
every individual man becomes conscious of what he is, and becomes entirely and solely responsible for
himself; and not for himself only, but for all men (EH, 23).
With that definition, Sartre believes he succeeds in doing away with the morose perceptions
that others have thrown on existentialism as an ideal way of life. Sartre does a bang up job defining a
few terms that have previously characterized misunderstandings of existentialism. These terms, the
true meanings of which people are ignorant, are terms like anguish, abandonment, despair, and
These terms are easily defined for Sartre, and therefore further the clarity of his definition of
existentialism, and therefore his conception of existentialism as a humanism. Others have disdained the
term, anguish, but for Sartre it is that which stems from a mans commitment to find his essence.
Because total commitment is required, the complacent man feels anguish at the thought of pushing
himself to find himself (EH, 25). Similarly, abandonment is not a pessimistic idea to Sartre, rather it is an
optimistic idea that we are left to ourselves with no thing, person, or God, to help us (EH, 34). Despair,
another term we find haunting the existentialist perception, to Sartre simply means we should act
without hope (EH, 35). Again, this is not to be a pessimistic thing, but an understanding and acceptance
of the idea that my actions will not change all things, or many things, really anything but myself as an
individual subject among mankind. A concise summary statement Sartre gives is, I cannot count on
men whom I do not know based on faith in the goodness of humanity (EH, 35). Very probably the term
quietude, is among the most misunderstood by opponents of Sartres existentialism. They say, simply,
that existentialism leads one to say others can do what I cannot do (EH, 36). For Sartre, the true view
is the opposite of such a jumbled statement; that is, reality exists only in action man is nothing other
than his own project (EH, 37).
In sum, Sartres existentialism is a morality of action and commitment (EH, 40). This doctrine
does not want to find itself anywhere near comforting theories full of baseless hope (EH, 40). And
further, existentialism is not anything like objective materialism because its aim is exactly to establish
the human kingdom as a set of values distinct from the material world (EH, 41). Finally, Sartre says the
fundamental aim of existentialism is to find the linkage between the free commitment of man, wherein
he realizes himself, and his relation to the world that he creates through that realization.
This is humanism because we remind man that there is no legislator other than himself and
that he must, in his abandoned state, make his own choices, and also because we show that it is
not by turning inward, but by constantly seeking a goal outside of himself in the form of
liberation, or of some special achievement, that man will realize himself as truly human (EH,
For Heidegger, a difference with Sartre lies in his idea of existence preceding essence.
Heidegger inverts the two elements. Essence precedes existence. Heidegger gives an altogether
different exposition of humanism. He dislikes being called a humanist or existentialist. He entirely
rejects any idea of an identification of himself as a humanist because all humanism is grounded in
metaphysics. He rejects metaphysics because the thinking that thinks from the question concerning
the truth of being questions more primordially than metaphysics can. Only from the truth of being can
the essence of the holy be thought (p. 267). Heidegger wants to get away from metaphysics and closer
to thinking, indeed he says what is needed in the present world of crisis is less philosophy and more
thinking (LH, 276). This he says because he fears that the thinking which is to come is no longer
philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics a name identical with philosophy (LH,
Heideggers project is to answer, in a very round-about way, the question of How can some
sense be restored to the word Humanism? (LH, 175). But in response, Heidegger says that, to restore
a sense to it can only mean to redefine the meaning of the word. Throughout his letter he says this
redefinition of philosophical terminology is necessary for a significant chunk of language. To answer this
question he has to ask, but whence and how is the essence of the human being determined? He
says Karl Marx will tell us it lies in our natural needs of food, clothing, reproduction, economic
sufficiency, etc. The Romans will tell us it lies in exalting and honoring the embodiment of education,
that is, scholarship and training in good conduct (LH, 153). Winckelmann, Goethe, and Schiller will all
tell us in slightly differing words that they see, humanism in general as a concern that the human being
become free for his humanity and find his worth in it.
But in order to reach this freedom and worth, Heidegger believes we must think more
primordially. This, he says, is no humanism; at least not the way it has been defined by philosophy.
Nor is it metaphysics, as existentialism is merely a humanism, and humanism merely metaphysical.
Every humanism is grounded in a metaphysics. Every humanism is metaphysical (LH, 153). In this
way, Heidegger agrees somewhat with Sartre that existentialism is merely a humanism. But in his mind,
metaphysics not only at times, but ultimately, fails in its endeavor to understand the metaphysical.
Metaphysics does not ask about the truth of being itself. Nor does it therefore ask in what way the
essence of the human being belongs to the truth of being. Being is still waiting for the time when It
itself will become thought-provoking to the human being (LH, 154).
The humanist, existentialist, metaphysical views include all the higher aspirations. While
Heidegger does, indeed, want to eventually reach those higher aspirations, he knows they can only
come to light if we first descend into the poverty of *beings+ provisional essence. The essence of
the human being lies in his ek-sistence (LH, 155). That is, Dasein, which is the Germanic language for
being, or its English equivalent there-being, or being-there, which being to Heidegger has the
fundamental character of ek-sistence.
Juxtaposed to Sartres desire to ground humanism in mans existence, as a precedent for
essence, Heidegger promotes a much more abstract pursuit of where man is found. His terminology is
harder to understand than Sartres, but bears discussion. The human being is, and is human, insofar as
he is the ek-sisting one. As per his definition, Ek-sistence means standing out into the truth of being
(LH, 158). Heideggers ek-sistence is to differ from mere existence in that it exists out, or as Heidegger
says, he stands out in the openness of being (p.180). To be human means to find ones essence. That
essence is to think, but not to think as most people think towards something, rather it is to think and
simply be. That being is what allows the human to simply be human, and simplify all things around
him in his effort to think of those things. For Heidegger these are highly linguistic concerns.
Here some may think Heidegger is making his argument too complicated. Such is probably a
strong argument and one Heidegger admittedly would not refute because he knows that new
terminology and new use of language is needed to carefully define and describe real thinking. The
essence of the human being consists in his being more than merely human. More must not be
understood here additively. The more means: more originally and therefore more essentially in terms
of his essence (LH, 173). Here is a crux of Heideggers argument, The human being is the shepherd of
being. Human beings lose nothing in this less; rather, they gain in that they attain the truth of being.
They gain the essential poverty of the shepherd, whose dignity consists in being called by being itself
into the preservation of beings truth (LH, 173-174).
Is not this all just a form of humanism, Heidegger? He says yes, but there is a subtle but deep
difference. He says, the difficulty is not a matter of indulging in a special sort of profundity and of
building complicated concepts; rather, it is concealed in the step back that lets thinking enter into a
questioning that experience and lets the habitual opinion of philosophy fall away. He calls this a
shattering of philosophy, and that such shattering changes our thinking, the recipient of which can
only be benefited by the gift of coming to the truth. In this shattering, opponents of Heidegger dub him
a speaker against humanism, against logic, against values, against God. This is similar to Sartres being
dubbed, by virtue of his upholding of existentialism, a speaker for anguish, abandonment, despair, and
quietude. Really these are just linguistic misperceptions that the authors feel are easily addressed.
Heidegger says he is not against any of these things. Rather he has redefined how to
understand them in an attempt to allow the world to see how definitions hamper ones ability to think
about the real meaning of not only the words themselves, but the being-there, the Dasein, the
essence of being, the truth. these very terms were bound to lead immediately and inevitably into
error (LH, 188). As an example, he says of knowledge of God that we must first learn our essence, or
an adequate concept of Dasein, then we can think to formulate a question, with respect to which the
question can be asked how the relationship of Dasein to God is ontologically ordered. This he says,
gets misunderstood to be indifference, rather in his mind it transcends all metaphysics in a purely
primordial sense.
There are certainly many aspect of Heideggers Letter on Humanism that support Sartres
Existentialism is a Humanism. Heidegger would agree that existentialism is a humanism as Sartre says.
But he would definitely argue that Sartre missed the point entirely. And Sartre would undoubtedly say
the same of Heidegger. Heidegger says nothing really results from real thinking. What can we obtain
from knowledge by way of directives to be applied to our active lives? Nothing, he says. Sartre would
be in an absolute uproar at such a preposterous proposition. Though Sartre says, we do not believe in
the idea of progress, he does believe we can pass judgment on those with bad faith. And in this, I
believe, Heidegger would disagree.
To Heidegger our thinking gives meaning to our being, which gives meaning to our actions. Both
Heidegger and Sartre would probably agree on this statement in Heideggers Letter: we look for
thinking which has its world-historical prestige under the name philosophy in the form of the
unusual, which is accessible only to initiates. At the same time we conceive of thinking on the model of
scientific knowledge and its research projects. But they would disagree on the continuance of the
excerpt: we measure deeds by the impressive and successful achievements of praxis. But the deed of
thinking is neither theoretical nor practical, nor is it the conjunction of these two forms of
comportment (LH, 192).
Sartre is a proponent of the metaphysical and existential tasks. Heidegger is a proponent of the
near-self, fundamentally simple truths, as redefined in his writings. Sartre wants no part in the Marxist
or Christian views of materialism and mans elevation to some high status, while Heidegger wants simply
to redefine metaphysics and understand our essence before understanding the beyond. Ending with
one of his favorite bucolic references, Heidegger tells of the farmer in his simple field doing the simple
task of being himself, his essence. Heidegger, in a very succinct way, explains what it means to think,
but spends the rest of his life attempting to essay what he is really trying to say, knowing that language
that explains true thinking of the Dasein is obviously quite complicated. Sartre clearly contrasts starkly
with this in his less-jargon-heavy, traditionally philosophical, proposal of the similarities between
existentialism and humanism, and how Heidegger seems to be both.
The two views are very clearly related, but are not the same. Ultimately Heideggers thinking is
directed towards letting beings be, and therefore accomplishes our relationship to being itself. This kind
of thinking becomes nothing more and nothing less than our ek-static standing out into the light of
being and experiencing, even witnessing, its advent, the advent of being. That is not what Sartre is
saying. He is about an existence that precedes essence, an inversion of Heidegger.
Jacques Derrida, the Algerian, is a different bus ride, and will only be considered briefly as he
troubles this conversation between Sartre and Heidegger. He reminds us that philosophers write texts
which stimulate and produce concerns. His focus is the well-known deconstruction of texts; a
hermeneutics of sorts, to be sure. This deconstruction needs to be understood as a characteristic of the
texts themselves, of all texts. That is, texts only have meaning insofar as they are made up of a network
of differences in play with each other. An understanding of his attempt at deconstruction is essential to
understanding how Derrida muddies the waters of this polylogue on humanism.
We could say Derrida might be colloguing with Sartre and Heidegger, but again, he is a different
animal in his reasoning. Of course, for Derrida presence is philosophys highest value, not reason. In
The Ends of Man, Derrida confronts Sartre briefly and Heidegger at length, on their proposals of the
humanist view of the time. Derrida is always analyzing texts, such as theirs, in light of the tradition of
the time and in what context those texts were written, to see how that skews a proper interpretation of
the reading.
Derrida scolds Sartre for taking away anthropologism from the western tradition, and addresses
Heideggers response to Sartres critique, a kind of confrontation between them. He puts the
conversation in its context by reminding the reader that humanism went under the name of
existentialism at the time of Heidegger and Sartres writings. He said, After the war, under the name of
existentialism , either Christian or atheistic, and conjointly with a fundamentally Christian personalism,
the dominant school of thought in France professed to be essentially humanistic (EM, 34). Derrida
doesnt make his claim in solitude, but in the time and space of a larger totality (EM, 37). He puts the
philosophizing of the time in its place, saying, the current questioning of humanism is
contemporanesous with the dominating and fascinating extension of the behavior sciences within the
philosophical field (EM, 37).
As to Sartre, he says, Atheism changes nothing in this fundamental structure. Sartres attempt
is a remarkable example verifying Heideggers proposition according to which all humanism remains
metaphysical, metaphysics being the other name for onto-theology (EM 36). And again, Defined in
this way, humanism or anthropologism was at this time a sort of common ground of existentialisms of
the philosophy of values (EM, 36).
In addressing Heideggers writings, Derrida claims, and yet, in spite of this supposed
neutralizing of metaphysical presuppositions, we have to admit that the unity of man is not in itself
called into question. Not only is existentialism a humanism , but the ground and horizon of what Sartre
then called his phenomenological ontology remains the unity of human-reality (EM, 35). Of course,
Derrida says this simply shows us that the concept of man is never questioned. They are both writing
as if everything takes place as thought the sign man had no origin, no historical, cultural, linguistic
limit, not even a metaphysical limit. (EM, 35). The problem here, he says is that that history shows
itself as a theme in Sartre and Heideggers writings, but the history of concepts is not present.
Derrida deconstructs Heideggers questioning by pointing out that near and far show a
metaphoric structure which pulls Heideggers argument into the discursive. The fact remains that
Being which is nothing, which is not a being, cannot be said, cannot say itself, except in the ontic
metaphor. And the choice of such a metaphorics is necessarily significant (EM, 53). Derrida explains
that it is in this emphasis that the proper interpretation of the sense of being can be found. Somehow,
though, through Derridas deconstruction Heidegger is found to be in opposition of the near and the
far In the same way, the privilege accorded not only to language, but to spoken language is in harmony
with the motif of presence as presence to itself (EM, 53).
In the thought and the language of Being, the end of man has always been prescribed, and this
prescription has never served except to modulate the equivocality of the end, in the interplay of
telos and death. In the reading of this interplay, the following chain of events can be taken in all
of its senses: the end of man is the thought of Being, man is the end of the thought of Being, the
end of man is the end of the thought of Being. Man has always been his proper end; that is, the
end of what is proper to him. The being has always been its proper end; that is, the end of what
is proper to it (EM, p. 55)
Furthermore, he says that any idea of the end of man is already found in metaphysics, or in the
very thought of the truth of man. And if there is any confusion as to where man fits in the grand scheme
of thinsgs, he clarifies (which is really throwing a wrench in):
Man is that which is relative to his end, in the fundamentally equivocal sense of the word. This
has always been so. The transcendental end can appear to itself and unfold before itself only in
the condition of mortality, of relation to finitude as the origin of ideality. The name of man has
always been inscribed in metaphysics between these two ends. It has meaning only in this
eschato-teleological situation (EM, 44).
In sum, from his reading and analysis of Heidegger and Sartre, Derrida has reread and rewritten
some of the concepts of we and man as found in Existentialism is a Humanism and Letter on
Humanism. The feeling to be had from reading and conflating these texts is one of missing each other.
They all seem to be speaking on their own plane and in their own time and context. None seem to be
arguing directly at each others words specifically, but rather, at the traditional concepts of the time in
which those texts were written. Like missing a high-five, the linguistic problematics demonstrate perfect
incongruence in an ability to correctly interpret how these three thinkers are analyzing each other. One
speaks from a metaphysical foundation, another from a more simple foundation, and another from a
linguistic deconstruction that ends up being more of an analysis unable to make a viable claim without
comparison to other texts. Humanism, then is still a term yet to be parsed out and discovered,
especially in western philosophy.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 30, No. 1. (Sept., 1969), pp. 31-57
Heidegger, Martin. Letter on Humanism, Translated by Frank A. Capuzzi, 1949, London: Routledge. pp.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentalism is a Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Word Publishing Company,
1946, pp. 17-55