Interview: Sarah Richmond on Existentialism

Dr Richmond, I had the opportunity to attend your module “Morality and Literature” in Winter 2019 at UCL, in which you explored the relations between moral value and literary works. One of your lectures was dedicated to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism – we studied his What is Literature? – which is also one of your main research interests.

1. In general, existentialism, although a vague term, refers to a branch of philosophy which is primarily concerned with “the human condition”. What is this human condition? And would you say that existentialist philosophies can derive any special ethical implications from it? 

Prof. Richmond: I agree: although the term ‘existentialism’ has entered philosophical usage, it is vague and it can also be misleading. First, there is no consensus about which philosophers belong in that category. For example, although Nietzsche is sometimes described as an existentialist, that classification would be controversial because there is so much in Nietzsche’s thought – for example, his concern with life, strength vs weakness, health, physiology and so on – which leads in other directions. Some people say that Kierkegaard was the first existentialist philosopher, but that’s not a very illuminating statement either, not least because he didn’t see himself as beginning a new ‘ism’. In fact, many of the philosophers who are given the label didn’t use it of themselves! The most notorious instance of this would be Heidegger, who objected violently to the parallels which many people drew between his ideas and those of Sartre; he categorically dissociated himself from ‘existentialism’.

Insofar as the idea of ‘the human condition’ is important for some existentialist philosophers, it rests on a contrast with the idea of ‘human nature’. Sartre makes this point explicitly in his short text ‘Existentialism and Humanism’, which originated in a lecture he delivered shortly after the Second World War: ‘although it is impossible to find in each and every man a universal essence that can be called human nature, there is nevertheless a human universality of condition.’ Although each person’s situation is different – for example, unlike Sartre, I did not experience the 1939-45 war, and have never lived under Occupation – Sartre insists on some universal structures of human existence. In his view, the fundamental and constitutive structure is our freedom: although there will always be elements of our situation that we did not choose (for example, our date and place of birth), we are free to choose how to respond to it, and which ends to pursue. Other existentialists thought that Sartre had exaggerated the extent of our freedom: for example Simone de Beauvoir famously described (in her Second Sex) the limitations placed by society on women, and Merleau-Ponty argued that we make our choices against the background of a set of meanings and habits which we cannot re-invent at each instant.

The focus of existentialist philosophy is human existence in the world. Heidegger was a major influence here, with his hyphenated concept ‘Being-in-the-world’; he argued, against Descartes and others, that by theorizing human beings in isolation from the world, earlier philosophers had misrepresented our existence. Another influential idea from Heidegger was the importance of the temporal dimension in our lives, in at least two senses: first, because each person finds herself at some specific historical location (and Heidegger also situated his own philosophy historically), and second, because of human mortality or finitude. And while we are thinking historically, we should remember that for mid-twentieth century Europeans, the decline of religious belief was still salient. For some existentialists, the ‘death of God’ removed the foundation from conventional morality; for others (such as Albert Camus who, while not primarily a philosopher, was closely associated with existentialist thought), it left us with an ineliminable sense of the absurdity of the human condition.

From the philosophers I have just mentioned we can draw out different ethical implications; for Sartre, the primary ethical requirement is to acknowledge (rather than to deny) our freedom, which means shouldering a heavy weight of responsibility. Heidegger was more wary of ethical pronouncements but his concept of authenticity (which, for Heidegger, required a clear-sighted relationship to our own mortality) was influential. Many of the French existentialists (including Sartre, de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty) were on the political left which meant that, to varying degrees, the evaluative dimension of their philosophy was inflected by this political orientation.

2. It seems as if existentialist philosophers devoted a lot of attention to situations of tremendous gravity, e.g. war, death or depression. Why do you think that is? And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and other “ultimate situations” such as climate change and the global populism, can an existentialist perspective offer any helpful insights?

Richmond: Part of the answer to this question is biographical:  the French existentialists (as well as Heidegger, who was an important influence) all lived through an event of the outmost gravity: World War II. The French also had the experience of Occupation, which generated a stark moral choice for ordinary citizens: collaboration or resistance. Once the War was over, there were also new choices about the political future: should the West continue with capitalism, or did recent events indicate the need to overthrow it, in favour of a socialist society?

An important tenet in what we might call „existentialist psychology“ is our (motivated) tendency to avoid disturbing facts – our mortality, our radical freedom, life’s absurdity; these philosophers argued that ordinary everydayness provides a kind of cover. In acting like everyone else – we go to school, commute to work, shop and cook, raise our children, and so on – we can enjoy an illusion of necessity, an unquestioning „that’s just how it is“ state of mind. From this perspective, world-historical crises are useful and illuminating, insofar as they destroy that illusion.

With respect to Covid-19, there are a number of interesting connections to be made. It could be said that we already have an existentialist account of an epidemic, in Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague (La Peste, in French), set in Algeria, where Camus grew up. Sales of the novel have rocketed since the current pandemic began! As we might expect, Camus depicts people’s tendency to deny what is happening around them, while his central characters illustrate a range of possible responses to the crisis; heroic or cowardly, priestly or practical. For Camus, the possibility of sudden illness and death can alert people to the fragility of life, and the preciousness of simple sensual pleasures, like the sun and the sea. Other existentialists might pick up on the interpersonal impact of elements of the lockdown: how do social distancing, mask-wearing and the fear of infection modify our interpersonal relations? Sartre and de Beauvoir would almost certainly have noted the social distribution of infection, and the greater vulnerability of (poorer) families who live in crowded conditions. These are general thoughts; in response to the question ‚How should we act?’, Sartre’s response would probably require each person to consider what is within her reach, and what ends to pursue, within her particular situation. There is an ethically particularist slant to his thinking. At the political level, I can imagine a highly critical and sceptical analysis of the ‚we’re all in this together’ rhetoric. Sartre’s belief in the socio-economic and political reality of class conflict, I think, would have made him an opponent of contemporary populism, while his commitment to the importance of critical thought would have determined him to try to understand it.

It is often said, with some justice, that the existentialists were remarkably uninterested in science; it is difficult to imagine them, for example, engaging with epidemiological modelling or vaccine research, let alone the science of climate change. Philosophically, we can relate this to their focus on lived experience; as Sellars put it, our everyday image of the world is ‚manifest’ rather than ‚scientific’. Biographically, this outlook reflects their education. More recent philosophers have criticised existentialism for its anthropocentrism and it’s true that questions about non-human animals and ecology are neglected (although we should note that these questions only came into prominence later in the twentieth century). In the work of some existentialists, we can discern paths into these issues: as I’ve mentioned, Camus was passionate about the beauty of the natural world, and the late Merleau-Ponty had an almost pantheistic vision. As for Sartre, I imagine that he would have been delighted at the current wave of environmentalist activism, and receptive to the idea of justice for future generations. In more theoretical terms, we could also note the concept of the ‚practico-inert’, elaborated in Sartre’s Critique of Practical Reason, which refers to the way in which human action on the material world (‚labour’) often leads to its own unforeseen deviation. This concept enables us to look beyond isolated individual human actions, to consider their combined, and destructive effect – indeed, Sartre uses the example of deforestation in China; although individual peasants had good reason to uproot trees to enable them to cultivate the land, they were ultimately undone by the catastrophic flooding brought about by their combined actions. It is probably this later, quasi-Marxist existentialism, which offers most resources for thinking about these questions.

3. You studied Philosophy in Oxford, a university which is firmly grounded in the analytic tradition. However, you dedicate a lot of your work to thinkers which many Anglo-Saxon philosophers might call “continental”. What role, do you think, do “continental philosophers” play in the analytic tradition? Might the “gap” between analytic and continental philosophy be slowly closing again?

Richmond: I can speak briefly on this; I have never taken the so-called ‚gap’ seriously. First, it rests on a lazy generalisation about philosophical currents, which it doesn’t take much scrutiny to discredit. Second, I would cite Bernard Williams’ debunking and brilliant comparison of the alleged distinction between analytic and continental philosophy with a distinction, among cars, between those which are front-wheel drive and those manufactured in Japan! Third, when anglophone philosophers invoke the distinction, it is often from a position of ignorance, and with the disguised purpose of asserting their own superiority. My response to your question would be that the gap never really existed in the first place, but that dialogue between philosophers from different cultural backgrounds is always a good thing!

Thank you very much for taking the time!

Sarah Richmond is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at University College London. One of her main research interests is the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, about whom she has published a number of articles. Sarah’s new English translation of Sartre’s major philosophical text Being and Nothingness (first published in 1943), appeared in 2018 (Routledge).

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