I’ve been making my way through E. L. Allen’s 1953 study Existentialism from Within (reprinted by Greenwood Press, 1973). Even if I don’t agree with the author on all points, it is a very coherent work on a difficult subject, and while it is sympathetic to the existentialist experiment it is far from being blandly uncritical.
In this post I specifically want to touch on four areas of weakness that Allen identifies in the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. Firstly, the intellectual world of this atheist French philosopher is entirely man-made (it overlooks the natural environment); secondly, it sees “authenticity” versus “inauthenticity” in starkly unrealistic terms, neglecting the nuances that color human life; thirdly, the idea of responsibility in a “godless” universe presents us with an apparent contradiction. But there is yet another failing that is strikingly stated. Allen addresses what he calls the “omission of children.”
The world of Sartre is… peopled with adults, and with very sophisticated adults at that. This leads to the omission from his analysis of the human situation of some of the most important elements in it. For example, he regards freedom as irrupting ready-made into the world, whereas it is rather something that has to be elicited by freedom in others. Would the child pass from impulse to self-transcendence and far-reaching decision if he were not trained thereto by the society into which he is born, by the home in the first instance? Again… the failure to notice even the mystery of birth leaves him insensitive to the sacred as a dimension of human life. The child comes to us, not as an accident, but as a gift and trust. It is in his presence that perhaps we realize most acutely what it means to be under moral obligation. For here there is nothing whatever to restrict the exercise of physical power and yet we feel such restraints upon that power as obtain nowhere else. The very helplessness of the child commands our reverence.
The implications of Allen’s statement are more obvious now than when they were penned sixty years ago. I can only add what he himself points out—that the Sartrean denial of God and its insistence on the “absurdity” of existence belies the demand for “responsibility.”
I cannot [says Allen] see how responsibility is possible unless there is some tribunal beyond ourselves by which we know ourselves to be judged. My responsibility must be ‘before’ something or someone; it cannot be self-made.
One senses that the focus of Sartre’s system leads not so much to an increasing awareness of our responsibilities as it does to our evasion of them.
See related commentary on existentialism.