Triantafyllos Sermetis

Ph.D. in Philosophy

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki



How is freedom defined in the consciousness of human existence? Human life lies in a continuous process of will and conscious decisions. All the philosophies that examined ethics and formulated definitions and interpretations up to the beginning of the 20th century, aimed to help people make the decisions that would help them shape their choices. They emphasized the criteria as well as the goals and the moral values and defined the framework. Trust was the fundamental basis of these efforts, regarding the existence of a stable human being, more or less concrete, as well as the existence of causes and causal relations between events, emphasizing evidential knowledge. The fundamental principle that governs Sartre’s freedom is ontological; we are free not because we are ourselves, but we are the presence in ourselves. This last sentence clearly implies that we are "others" for ourselves; we are the characteristics ascribed to us by others. Therefore, we exist in a way that we are not, that is, according to the person that others to attribute to us. This inner distance reflects the non-identity of the self and the different temporality it creates; this thought leads to Sartre's statement that "freedom is the definition of human." Actually, this freedom is tightly connected to a great responsibility; we are responsible for our "world" which sets the limit of meaning and within which we operate. Therefore, everything that exists in human orients their life, to the extent that human understands this meaning and value. It is at this point that ontology overlaps with psychology in Sartre, while in phenomenology these two fields usually remain distinct.

Existentialism, however, in the 19th century came to negate these beliefs largely and to place the concept of radical freedom as imperative[1]. By interpreting radical freedom, Sartre lays the first principle of existentialism, which is self-consciousness. Sartre will prioritize energies over the Being, by contrast to the Cartesian tradition, continued by Husserl’s phenomenology, which gave priority to the identification of a transcendental Ego. The Being is constantly activated and keeps on acting, identifying, at the same time, with his actions[2]. In another words the subject who has consciousness, exists for his Ego and is determined by his actions. Owing to the fact that in nihilistic French existentialism there is no God pre-conceiving and creating a human being, human appears by chance in a pre-existing world[3] and creates and develops his Ego through his actions[4]. The only fact that human is actually conscious of are the causes which are a prerequisite for the action of the subject; these causes, which constitute the motives of the action of the being, are transcendental elements of the consciousness of the Being that are not connected with the outer reality. The human’s attempt to conceive these motives purely mentally is nothing but futile; this happens because these motives constantly escape from the whole existence. Sartre argues that human is doomed to exist forever beyond their essence, beyond motives and particularly the motives of their action; human is doomed to be free. This means that human freedom could have no limits other than the freedom itself, or, in other words, human never ceases to be free. Human freedom is absolute and unlimited, since its limits are determined themselves in each case. Freedom exists only where there is an instantaneous present. By no means is there any stability in the human essence. Sartre's philosophy focuses on the fact that human has the ability to be freed from a present state and move to a future one, through their consciousness. As a matter of fact, human perpetuates their freedom through the energy of consciousness. This concept is so essential to Sartre's thought, that it will appear in his later works as a means of reintroducing human freedom. The opposition freedom-necessity is presented as an act of consciousness; the moment human recognizes their freedom, they submit to the determinism of nature. For nihilistic existentialism, essence is defined by what the subject[5] understands as well as by the fact existence precedes[6]. The path to the future that human is directed to, goes along with the possibilities that appear in his way[7].

Therefore, the concept of freedom, as an attribute identified with existence, does not focus on a specific set of arguments against evidential knowledge, nor is it considered, as in Kantian epistemology, that there is a state of rational self-consciousness. Instead, it is placed on basis of immediate energy and is associated with the feeling of anxiety that a person experiences from the moment he is confronted with a specific situation. The words of Kierkegaard, the proponent of existentialism, are characteristic: “anguish is the reality of freedom”[8]. To interpret this feeling, Sartre cites the example of vertigo. When a person is on a path next to a cliff, he experiences fear and anxiety. The feeling of fear stems from the realization of what may happen as result general causality (such as slipping and falling off a cliff). At this point, could argue that there is an emotion evoked by the conception of a state being metaphysical in nature, beyond the external materiality of the apparent world. To overcome this fear, a reflexive reaction is adopted, such as the mechanism of attention, in order for someone to stay away from the edge of the cliff. However, neither fear nor any other cause can accurately determine the possible behavior and this fact ultimately breeds anxiety. Alternatively, one could argue that the anxiety is created by the realization of the potential and the possibilities presented as options; anxiety consists largely in the human’s fear not of falling off the cliff but of allowing himself to fall off the cliff[9]. Within this existential conception, the subject always feels the same agony concerning either the future or the past. In other words, time has the same form for both the future and the past. Sartre shows this kind of agony by giving examples from everyday life. According to the principles of existentialism, this is done because there is no taken decision that binds human to his future actions. Every time a person finds himself in a new situation, he starts by dealing with the inexperience of the possibilities that will arise. After all, this act of passion cannot be considered decisive for the existence of the decision. The first step to freedom, according to existentialism, is the denial of the feeling of desire, for freedom to be fulfilled immediately and without any deviation.

Sartre seems to be seeking absolute freedom, which is a core issue for human; a type of freedom that is not subjected to material restrictions. Naturalist determinism cannot affect the freedom that lies in the core of human existence, namely in consciousness. In the book Being and Nothingness, Sartre will attempt to prove that the only adventure that human can experience is to constantly discover their self-consciousness; the degree of discovery of consciousness depends directly on the degree to which human sets themselves free to penetrate their Being. It is a dialectic of freedom and consciousness. This parallel world of consciousness is by no means confused with material reality, with the exception of the level of particularization of existence. This fundamental ontological relationship of human is particularized in the form of knowledge and action in the outer world. In other words, the world is outside human and, at the same time, human is related to the outer world due to the externalization of consciousness in the form of knowledge and action. At the same time, consciousness is revealed to human as a void without content, having no life; it is humans themselves that animate consciousness and make it meaningful through their actions. Consciousness is always beyond itself. Within consciousness, there is a constant movement of escape from itself. Consciousness is nothing but a peculiar externality and, as result, it has no specific form; this is a fact that constitutes consciousness. Freedom of consciousness is beyond itself. While it is composed in the inner world of human, however, it cannot be fully perceived as an object; it is elusive in essence and there is no such substance that would constitute the true, the authentic or the deep self. The self that is particularized in the world, namely this mystery that appears in the light, is not the center of human consciousness; consciousness is radical freedom but it does not completely coincide with it; consciousness freely chooses the radical freedom and can even be separated from it. Consciousness cannot be imprisoned in an objective substance.

Freedom is a source of self-determination

Therefore, according to the above analysis, human is solely responsible for his passions[10]. The emerging fact, however, is that any voluntary action which results in deterring social organization can be negated at any time. What is the impact on human relationships? What could be the resultant issues? Can social relations exist without the concept of security, which clearly emerges from the construction of a moral and legal framework? Sartre attempts to solve this problem by putting forward two arguments. First, he argues that one can rely on given behaviors, based on in possibilities. This means that a person's previous life, despite not being a series of certain behaviors, it can, however, be a sign of probability. One can trust the words of others in a similar way that one can trust that his friend will not be late for their meeting, given the probability that the train he is on will not be derailed[11]. Secondly, within the context of everyday culture, in the world of immediacy, as Sartre calls it, what kind of criteria shape the human action? Does he put his mind first and then act based on the choices that exist? A person's volitional actions are activated, without any kind of direct thought; therefore, they are more likely to be influenced by well-established ethical principles or other eternal moral values[12].

If, however, one tries to justify decisions based on given and long established values, which do not derive from a particular subject, then he is considered to be acting in bad faith, because he is voluntarily relinquishing his freedom. This happens because no value exists in advance, owing to the fact that we create the values ​​ourselves. As Wahl characteristically states, Sartre insists mainly on the fact that the foundation of values ​​is human himself[13]. Self-determined behavior as an act of freedom is indisputably associated with human. In other words, only human can determine his own behavior at a decisive moment in present as well as in future time; there is no alternative. Human cannot give up his freedom, because it is the source of his self-determination. In addition, the consequence of this given coexistence of human with his freedom does not only constitute his human greatness but also his existential drama[14]. The responsibility of human, however, cannot be defined within the frames of his subjectivity. Since human creates actions, due to the fact that voluntarily makes choices for himself, he also chooses an image for the world in general. Human contains the whole world. In other words, the responsibility now lies in the whole humanity and not just in one being. In the light of this action, Sartre and Camus consider going beyond the principle that introduces the self-commitment of the practical subject as the only possible commitment. Camus will attempt to analyze and introduce a categorical command drawn from Kant's theory. Based on these data Sartre will attempt to investigate Marx's theory from the 19th century. Regardless of his attempts at a theoretical level, Sartre tries to explain why radical freedom cannot be easily conquered due to a number of causes. On the one hand, there is a denial of freedom itself, because an existential movement taking place in external matter, escapes now from itself and it becomes an independent self. As Wahl explains, freedom exists in human nature[15]. On the other hand, necessity is inevitable, as there is the fact of the transient existence of the subject. Transcending the existence beyond its narrow limits and attempting to identify with the cosmic Being is an act of the subject. For Heidegger, the limits of absolute freedom will always be defined in the context of this thought [16].

On the one hand, the bipolarity of a transient life and the absolute freedom of human to choose without having any criteria or an ultimate purpose, and, on the other hand, the subject coming to terms with irrationality, are all factors that clearly indicate the contradiction of nihilistic existentialism. The latter allows human to realize that he lives a meaningless life. As a result, human finds himself considering the possibility of self-abstraction of the existence. Camus firmly believes in having a positive attitude towards life, trying to adopt a life stance that despises the negative[17]. Nagel will suggest his own position on negative attitude and will adopt irony. All these proposals, however, come to the same conclusion. These positions do not go hand in hand with the demand for radical freedom. Each person makes their choices based on freedom and the various options offered. The self-worth of life lies in the fact that one chooses to live because he exists. The nihilistic existentialism, advocated by Sartre, moves along these rails[18].

Consequently, human freedom consists in the ability of consciousness to transcend its material state. People are free only if their basic needs are fulfilled. Sartre considers freedom synonymous with human consciousness. Consciousness ("being-for itself") is characterized by its non-coincidence with itself. Consciousness constantly escapes, because it serves an ultimate purpose (consciousness always points to an object other than itself) and because it is momentary (consciousness is necessarily future-oriented). Human freedom consists in the ability of consciousness, in the sense that no normal human being can stop being free. Consciousness is always freedom; volition can always be re-examined or rejected and that is how the anguish or threat of the moment is always explained. As paradoxical as it may seem, freedom can only be self-restricted. The external event and freedom cannot be easily separated, making it impossible for the external event to be attributed to objectivity and for freedom to be attributed to subjective volition. Overcoming this distinction is what lies at the heart of Sartre’s conception; it is this issue that undoubtedly makes a moral re-examination possible, regarding the level of reflection of this primordial and original freedom.


The moral gap that has been created by the existential philosophy seems to be in conflict with the basic principles of the system itself. Anyone trying to associate this system with any kind of individual or collective commitment, weakens the very foundations of this system. It is certain, in my opinion, that people who want to join the existing social and moral system voluntarily and commit themselves to the undertakings involved, will negate the fundamental pillars of their freedom. Inevitably, the system we always prevent people from acting out of their own volition. Therefore, only by negotiating the freedom of the being in relation to the social system, will the concept of radical freedom make sense. Sartre's emphasis on a moral responsibility through the ontological analysis of freedom, as opposed to the hitherto rules, principles and values ​​in recent years, has led to a widespread interest in Levinas's work as a necessary complement to the so-called "postmodern" ethics. Sartre's existential philosophy significantly influenced the existence of a modern revival of the understanding of philosophy as a "way of life". At international level, his philosophy is a distinct academic brunch no longer focusing only on epistemology or, more recently, on the philosophy of language but, at the same time, renewing the interest in Hellenistic ethics as well as in various forms of spirituality. Finally, in Sartre's philosophy one can discover his existentialist forms of "self-care" that invite modern ethics, aesthetics and politics to a fruitful discussion without signs of ethicism or fanaticism.


Camus A., The Myth of Sisyphus, tr. Justin O'Brien, ed. Penguin Books Ltd, London 2000.

Kierkegaard S., The Concept of Anxiety, tr. Alastair Hannay, Oslo 2015.

Sartre Jean-Paul, Existentialism is a Humanism, tr. Carol Macomber, New Haven: Yale, [1946] 2007.

Sartre Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, tr. Hazel E. Barnes, New York: Philosophical Library, [1943] 1948.

Sartre Jean-Paul, The Imaginary, tr. Jonathan Webber, London: Routledge, [1940].

Sartre Jean-Paul, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1, Theory of Practical Ensembles, tr. Alan Sheridan-Smith, London: New Left Books. Reprinted in 2004, forward by Fredric Jameson. London: Verso. [1960].

Wahl J., Introduction to the Philosophies of Existentialism, tr. Chr. Malevitsis, published by Dodoni, Athens 1988.


[1] Sartre Jean-Paul, Existentialism is a Humanism, tr. Carol Macomber, p. 323, New Haven: Yale, [1946] 2007.

[2] Sartre Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, tr. Hazel E. Barnes, p. 94 New York: Philosophical Library, [1943] 1948.

[3] This notion has its roots in Heideggerian Dasein.

[4] This notion is summed up in Sartre's well-known saying that existence precedes essence, see Sartre Jean-Paul, Existentialism is a Humanism, tr. Carol Macomber, p. 297, New Haven: Yale, [1946] 2007.

[5] Sartre Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, tr. Hazel E. Barnes, p. 89, New York: Philosophical Library, [1943] 1948.

[6] Sartre Jean-Paul, Existentialism is a Humanism, tr. Carol Macomber, p. 297, New Haven: Yale, [1946] 2007.

[7] As Kierkegaard put it: "The potential for freedom is the future, and the future is the potential for time.", Kierkegaard S., The Concept of Anxiety, tr. Alastair Hannay, p. 111, Oslo 2015.

[8] Also, see p. 53.

[9] Sartre Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, tr. Hazel E. Barnes, pp. 82-83, New York: Philosophical Library, [1943] 1948.

[10] Sartre Jean-Paul, Existentialism is a Humanism, tr. Carol Macomber, p. 305, New Haven: Yale, [1946] 2007.

[11] Also, see, p.314.

[12] Sartre Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, tr. Hazel E. Barnes, pp. 93-94, New York: Philosophical Library, [1943] 1948.

[13] Wahl J., Introduction to the Philosophies of Existentialism, p. 110, tr. Chr. Malevitsis, published by Dodoni, Athens 1988: "My rule is only myself, and I must make my own rules", and also, "that through my election I create values, I am the unfounded foundation of values because I am the foundation of everything, I am without foundation, I am the being through whom value comes into the world and that is exactly why I am unjust ". Sartre insists, like Kierkegaard, that there is no external point that could orient.

[14] Sartre Jean-Paul, Existentialism is a Humanism, tr. Carol Macomber, p. 306, New Haven: Yale, [1946] 2007.

[15] Wahl J., Introduction to the Philosophies of Existentialism, p. 110, tr. Chr. Malevitsis, published by Dodoni, Athens 1988, "This is our condition to be the freedom that coagulates and at the same time the freedom that triumphs or at least has to triumph over this gel; to be what it is, while its deepest tendency is to be what it is not. Freedom exists thanks to nature, because it is our nature to be free but it is against nature, because it must always fight against what tends to thicken it, which tends to transform it into what Sartre calls en-soi. "Again, freedom always ends in failure, and indeed, we could talk about liberation rather than freedom.".

[16] In Kierkegaard, necessity takes on a special meaning, as necessity, which is the opposite of freedom, is not identified with historical reality, as Hegel argues. Noesis and Being are targeted as identical in Hegel, thus shaping external reality as a necessity. For Kierkegaard, however, this is the definition of being and not of the real being. Reality here takes on a different dimension and does not reflect its historical dimension, its intersubjective thoughtfulness, but necessity as reality is inherent in the subject outside of any kind of permeability. Here it is emphatically noted that the necessary is identified with eternity, as the necessary is always necessary and it is impossible to submit to any change in the finite world. Therefore, the necessary does not belong to the material conventional time, but to another dimension of space-time, which, as already noted above, according to Bergson is duration or real time.

[17] Camus A., The Myth of Sisyphus, tr. Justin O'Brien, p. 145, ed. Penguin Books Ltd, London 2000, "We must imagine Sisyphus happy".

[18] The only consistent answer is the one that Sartre would probably give: "Choose!”

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