Tag Archives: existentialism

“Slavery is a choice”

Dr. John Duncan is the director of the Ethics, Society, and Law program at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, and the founding president of the society for the study of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, as well as its journal PhaenEx. He gained his BA and MA in philosophy from Carleton University, and his PhD in social and political thought from York University. John works on a variety of issues including existentialism, the history of philosophy, and peace and conflict studies.

In this post for the Cultural History of Philosophy blog, John works with Jean-Paul Sartre’s radical understanding of freedom of choice to critically interpret Kanye West’s controversial claim that slavery is a choice.

On May 1, 2018, in an interview on the popular Los Angeles-based tabloid news website TMZ, the incredibly successful and controversial African-American hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Kanye West said: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years—for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” During the interview, about 3 minutes of which are on the TMZ Newsroom webpage, Kanye also characterises African-American slavery as mental imprisonment, and brings up his sense of the importance of freedom, his dislike for being categorised, and his love for U.S. President Donald Trump. TMZ senior producer Van Lathan fires back at Kanye, calling his remarks thoughtless and offensive.

It is unclear what Kanye meant, but the incident quickly became headline news, followed by a barrage of critical replies on social media and in the opinion sections of newspapers. The theme of the replies is perhaps best represented in a Tweet by Symone D. Sanders (CNN political commentator, progressive political strategist, and national press secretary for the 2016 Bernie Sanders U.S. presidential campaign), in which she wrote: “I am disgusted … Also (I can’t believe I have to say this): Slavery was far from a choice.”

However, there is at least one important respect in which slavery was a choice—the choice made by white people.

The philosopher who dealt most with the role of choice in situations of oppression such as slavery was the influential 20th century French public intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that human beings always have free choice. There are a couple of ways in which a reader of Sartre could argue that slavery is a choice: one, though radically incomplete, depends largely on the claim that slaves always could have resisted—this is likely closest to what Kanye meant—while another is the much more complete sense in which slavery was the choice of the white population, just as racism continues to be its choice. It is worth working our way from the former incomplete argument, to the latter more complete argument, and doing so within the context of the Sartrean logic of choice.

Sartre argued that even under extreme situations of oppression, including torture, individuals make free choices.[i] To understand this radical claim, we may contrast the torture of a human with the torture of a robot.

Except in science fiction, no amount of torture will make a robot choose to comply with demands inconsistent with its programming. A robot is a machine. Violent force may damage a machine, but it cannot make a machine choose anything, certainly not behaviour inconsistent with its programing. Some proponents of artificial intelligence may disagree, but their argument that robotic self-driving vehicles, for example, are safer than human-driven vehicles is based partly on the premise that the robotic vehicle’s programming does not allow it to choose to drive unsafely. Unlike a human driver who may choose to look at a mobile devise instead of the road, robots do what they are programmed to do. Indeed, as happens all too frequently, a human driver—but not a robotic vehicle—may choose to run down pedestrians deliberately, as Alek Minassian is alleged to have done, killing 10, in Toronto in April of 2018.

The goal of torture, which is a war crime that many are dismayed to be dealing with in the 21st century, is to make conditions for the victim so horrible that the choice not to comply with the torturer’s demands becomes more unbearable than the choice to comply—the torturer manipulates victims in order to get them to make the demanded choice. But the application of violent force to a human is not effective in a simple mechanical way. Whereas the right use of force to turn a functioning tap cannot fail to make water flow from it, torture can fail to get a victim to make the demanded choice. A human may choose resistance to the death, for example. And although force cannot make a robot choose anything, the right reprograming cannot fail to change its behaviour. Machines—neither simple ones like taps, nor complex ones like self-driving vehicles—simply do not make choices.

Of course, we cannot throw off oppressors by the mere exercise of choice. Lacking the power to overcome them, we are largely at their mercy. But at each moment we choose to endure, to resist, to plot, or to succumb. Indeed, it is often inspiring to learn about the exercise of choice in situations with virtually no liberty. Such choices seem to mark the near side of the limit of what it is to be a human being.

Likely, Kanye meant to say that because slavery existed for so long—“for 400 years”—slaves themselves must have too often failed to choose resistance. However, as many of those who reproached Kanye pointed out, slaves certainly exercised their fundamental freedom of choice and resisted in countless creative ways, great and small.

Readers of Sartre will recognize universal humanity in the freedom of choice that slaves retain, and in its exercise, however minimal, in situations with little liberty. Crucially important, in this respect, is the notion that each and every human being is always fundamentally his or her own choice-maker. Because we may always choose how to deal with what befalls us, we have agency in the last instance.

Unfortunately, when one chooses resistance within social structures enforced by violence, like slavery, one also chooses the risk of being beaten or lynched. Thus, although the choice to resist is real, and should be honoured, its outcome may have no impact on the social structures of oppression.

One might try to argue that because choosing resistance did not overcome slavery for many years, slavery ended up being the unwelcome result of the choices of many slaves. Although this is not likely what Kanye meant, the idea that slavery is the result of a choice that failed to liberate does raise an important question: why did resistance often fail to bring liberation?

The answer to that question is rooted in the fact that the freedom of choice that seems to be unique to humans includes the possibility of choosing to oppress others. Thus, in the case of slavery—and in the related case of racism, which is still with us—it is the white population that has chosen reprehensibly. Because the white population has benefited from the social structures of slavery and racism it has chosen to conform to those structures, or, at least, not to remove them. Not blacks and the fear of the costs of resistance, but whites and the promise of the rewards of conformity, have failed to end slavery and racism. In this sense, slavery and racism are indeed choices, both the white population’s choices to preserve dominance and privilege, and choices that apologists rationalize on the grounds of assumed superiority, promoting slavery and racism behind veils of natural necessity, and defending them behind lines of institutional power. The targets of Sartre’s critical interventions were precisely these kinds of failures to choose freedom for all.

We may try to interpret Kanye as having meant to highlight the agency of the victims of slavery—that they were not agency-less victims—but although readers of Sartre can agree with that much, they cannot agree that the responsibility for slavery lies with the victims and their agency rather than with the white population and its rationalisations and power.

During the history of slavery the white population’s choices were brutally violent; more recently they have been largely pacified and less direct, as when we fail to assume responsibility for structures from which we continue to benefit at the expense of others. Although this is not likely what Kanye meant, the history of resistance to slavery should encourage the privileged to stop making racism a choice.

[i] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. Trans. Hazel Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1956. Page 649.

Sartre & Co.

Richard Ashcroft is a philosopher and ethicist. He is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London. Here he reviews Sarah Bakewell’s book  At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Chatto & Windus, 2016) for the Cultural History of Philosophy Blog.

As a teenager I began to take an interest in philosophy for some of the usual reasons: uncertainty about the existence of God, doubt about the sort of person I was or wanted to be, puzzlement about my studies, utter confusion about sexuality. I took myself fairly regularly to the public library in search of enlightenment.

emmet-coverAfter getting bored by E. R. Emmet’s Pelican paperback, Learning to Philosophise – I really wasn’t that bothered by the existence of tables, but I was bothered that people might bother about that – I had fun with A. J. Ayer’s punk rock classic, Language, Truth and Logic, and then fell off the deep end into Nietzsche’s abyss through R. J. Hollingdale’s biography. Yet there was something a bit too challenging about Nietzsche. He was too elusive. Even the greatest hits (“God is dead…”) slipped through my fingers when I tried to pick them up and examine them. What Nietzsche did give you was a sort of borrowed dangerousness. Sticking a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra in your pocket gave you instantly the air of an Intellectual, even if you didn’t know what it was on about, in part because no one else did either, but it gave everyone something to react to. Nietzsche would have something to say about this, no doubt.

Yet it was only when I encountered the Existentialists that I began to get a sense of what philosophy might really be and how one might practically do – indeed, live – it. My route into Existentialism was through Beckett, but I quickly moved into the main writings of Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir and eventually Heidegger as I passed through my late teens and into my twenties. By the time I began to study philosophy (as part of History and Philosophy of Science) I had become aware that the Existentialists were rather out of fashion. Derrida and Foucault were now the names to drop, though of course they had their own debts to Existentialism. The professional philosophers I was taught by largely, though not exclusively, scorned this stuff (analytic rigour or Fenland parochialism? You decide). But in the wider circle of people who were interested in philosophy, who stuck paperbacks in their pockets and got into passionate and futile arguments in pubs and parties and over endless chocolate biscuits, the Existentialists were still current.

My reason for this excursion through memoir is to underline a thing which Sarah Bakewell’s study of the lives of the Existentialists highlights: the cultural importance of Sartre and company, and the autobiographical importance of these thinkers in the lives of many readers who grew up in the post-war period. Philosophy was current. People talked about it. People had fannish relations with philosophers; if you liked Sartre, you weren’t supposed to like Camus. For men particularly Simone de Beauvoir was the Yoko Ono of thought. The pop analogy is deliberate; for much of this coincides with the rise of pop and rock culture, and the emergence of the Teenager.



Much of the language of teenage self-fashioning and evaluation of pop trends is drawn directly from Existentialism – either directly or through writers such as Colin Wilson. Consider the lyrics of The Who, for instance, which are deeply engaged with questions of authenticity, honesty and truth in a very Sartrean vein; the same can be said of the Sex Pistols in a more refracted and distilled form.

Existentialism mediates between the ordinary developmental crisis of trying to become an adult person in one’s own right and the more specific crisis of doing so in a consumer society which both prioritises and pathologises individualism. Another feature of the postwar teenage experience is that “the kids” know something the adults don’t, that real invention and innovation come from youth and inexperience, and that the world as we find it is corrupt and needs to be overcome through youthful energy. Again, these are very Existentialist notions about finding one’s authentic project in world into which we are thrown, but which we can remake on our own terms, not accepting the rules as given as being binding upon us morally, but only as constraints to be overcome.

at-the-existentialist-cafe-uk-coverBakewell’s book is terrific – beautifully written, and elegant in its precise and concise portraits of the leading figures in the European Existentialist movement, their engagements – with thought and with each other – and the historical circumstances through which they moved. She is very fair to her cast, but does admit to her preferences. She is acute and tough-minded when it comes to her appraisals of their various political engagements (she’s especially good on Heidegger, but the arguments between Camus, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre are also well treated). One thing which appeals to Bakewell (and to me) is the relative prominence of women as Existentialist philosophers, and arguably the most abiding influence of Existentialist philosophy as such is in feminism, and I must admit that the only work of the Existentialists I would now want to go back to re-read is The Second Sex.

Writing and publishing a popular book about philosophers who were (are?) popular calls for comment in its own right. Bakewell’s book sits alongside Andy Martin’s The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus as a popular exposition of the ideas and lives of the Existentialists. It also sits alongside Bakewell’s study of Montaigne, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Stuart Jeffries has just published a group biography of German humourists The Frankfurt School (The Grand Hotel Abyss). And of course any visit to a bookshop will find a section on philosophy, much of which is devoted to a few Penguin classics, some popularisations of particular philosophers’ works, and books from the ever expanding “School of Life” books and the omnipresent Alain de Botton.

The standard philosopher’s view of all this might be that most of these are not “real” philosophy, being neither rigorous academic texts nor much connected to current research in the field. The standard non-philosopher’s view of that would be that that’s so much the worse for academic philosophy. I think reading Bakewell allows a more nuanced view to emerge. It shows that the “academic” and the “popular”, and indeed the “text” and the “life” can come together, but that it takes a rather specific historical conjuncture to occur for this to happen. Crudely put: while popularisation succeeds because there is a felt want for some kinds of “teaching” about life and its meanings and purposes which is never wholly out of fashion, it takes a lot more for work in professional philosophy (inside the academy or elsewhere) to become popular in its own right.


In the case of Sartre and company, they achieved a certain level of “cool” at a time when “being cool” was coming into focus; they danced, they drank, they published, they fought, and, in due course, they became so current and recognisable that Tony Hancock could make a film satirising and admiring them and their fans and Monty Python could do a skit in which two of their redoubtable Pepperpot ladies called on Sartre in Paris to ask him about a point of metaphysics, and millions of viewers would be in on the joke.

Some of this is probably mere historical happenstance. But the hook which enables this popularity is the engagement of this philosophy with the things of life itself – you don’t just philosophise and then go dancing. You philosophise about the dancing. And you dance philosophically.

Follow RIchard Ashcroft on Twitter: @qmulbioethics

Read more about Existentialism on the Cultural History of Philosophy Blog


Edward Caddy took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post he writes about ‘existentialism’ – one of the most widely used of all philosophical keywords.

Benedict Cumberbatch performs in Director Lyndsey Turner’s production of Hamlet at the Barbican, in London. Johan Persson / Reuters

“To be, or not to be: that is the question…” As a youth, sitting in class on a hazy summer afternoon, I didn’t wholly understand the question. In fact, I very much doubt anyone in that class did, no offence meant, Mr Williams. Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy must surely be the Western world’s most well known expression of an individual in existential crisis. Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, published in 1927 was the first philosophical work to point to the fact that ‘the essence of what it means to be human’. For Heidegger, as for Prince Hamlet, the only question a human must answer, is whether they choose to a live an authentic life, or not – what it means to be human is evidenced by our every day existence. Fortunately for most of us, Hamlet’s reservation remains one to be tackled in fiction and fantasy. Existentialist philosophers however, share a common concern with Hamlet, asking questions such as; Why am I here? What does it mean to be human? How should I best live my life?

‘Existential’ is recorded as having first entered the English language in 1656. The term was drawn from 4th century post-classical Latin – existentialis – meaning, coming into being. Up until the mid-20th century, ‘existential’ was used primarily to refer to existence; it held no philosophical definition as such. Unsurprisingly, the term found its roots outside the relatively modern field of existential philosophy. For instance, in the field of psychology, ‘existentialist’ found use as early as 1929 to describe an advocate of an approach to the study of consciousness based on the introspective analysis of experience into its elements. It was not until the mid-1940s that French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel coined the term ‘existentialism’ to refer to the emerging philosophical approach.[1]

Clearly defining existentialism has proven difficult, not least because of profound doctrinal differences between existentialism’s principle philosophers. The general consensus has been to consider existentialism not as a philosophical system or rigid set of doctrines, but rather as a philosophical movement, which focuses primarily on the analysis of human existence. The primary interest of those in the movement is the problem of human existence.

Despite rising to prominence in the mid-20th century, it was two thinkers from the 19th century that are considered the founding fathers of the movement. Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, though they never used the term ‘existentialist’, were the first to focus on the subjective human experience and the apparent meaningless of life. It was in the context of the emerging sense that science, which had made the world a mechanism governed by irrefutable, natural laws, and had drained any external or transcendent source of meaning, purpose or value from the universe, that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche began to look again at what it meant to be human, and how being human can be something valuable and useful. To overcome this dilemma, Kierkegaard’s knight of faith and Nietzsche’s Übermensch defined the nature of their own existence. In this way, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche can be considered the precursors to the philosophies that would define the movement.

“Shadow Play” 1961

It was in the years following the Second World War that existentialism became a significant philosophical and cultural movement, with influential existentialists such as Albert Camus, Simone de BeauvoirMartin HeideggerMaurice Merleau-Ponty and perhaps, most notably, Jean-Paul Sartre. The Second World War focused attention on the kind of moral dilemma that you’re faced with if you don’t have any absolutes to rest on – in a sense, the war presented individuals with a sharper form of perennial dilemmas. This period was pivotal for the transmission of existential philosophy to the public sphere; Beauvoir wrote that “not a week passed without the newspapers discussing us”;[2] existentialism became “the first media craze of the postwar era.”[3]

“[Existentialism] is an attitude that recognises the unresolvable confusion of the human world, yet resists the all-too-human temptation to resolve the confusion by grasping toward whatever appears or can be made to appear firm or familiar… The existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept.” (From Hegel to Existentialism, Robert Solomon)

Solomon’s explanation goes some way to expressing the existentialist’s concern with the ‘human condition’ and the questions they sought to answer. Existential thinkers have differed widely on their evaluation of the ‘human condition’ which only adds to the difficulty in defining the keyword, let alone the movement.

Although existentialist thinking became more apparent, it managed to retain, or indeed entrench further, its fluidity as a term. As Solomon noted, the individuals starting point begins with “the existential attitude”, that is, disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless world; for many, this only served to reinforce pre-existing, all-encompassing systems or theories that purported to provide answers to the meaning and purpose of human life. That is, religious and philosophical systems that remove the massive burden you are faced with if you try to create meaning and purpose for yourself in a unique and personal manner. Existential thinking is not fixed thinking.

The lack of clearly defined parameters has served to increase the
accessibility, and appeal of existentialism – in the wider realm of literature, theatre and film and television, ideals can be picked and chosen at will. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was the first to use literature to describe the existential condition in his Notes from Underground. Dostoyevsky describes the underground man, confronting an awful solitude and the lack of meaning and value in the universe. The protagonist, confronted with a confused world, has to look to himself to find meaning.

Dostoyevsky’s novels spawned influence in the world of film and television, art, literature and theatre. Jean Genet’s 1950 fantasy erotic Un chant d’amour attempts to convey the bleakness of human existence in a godless universe. More recently, The Matrix, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and even Toy Story, although not explicitly existentialist, tackle ideas of self, identity, freedom and authenticity. Whilst this creates difficulty in assessing the history of existentialism as a keyword, it goes some way to note the importance of existentialism in areas that it is not traditionally acknowledged. Existential philosophy will effect almost everybody at some point in their lives, whether they are conscious of it or not.


Much like myself growing up in the 21st century, young people right across the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s were influenced greatly by existentialism, not immediately by the novels and writings of Sartre or Camus, but by a series of popularisations that were extraordinarily well read – books by John Macquarrie, Lynne Olson, and Walter Kauffman. The Spectator Archive reflects the increase of existentialism in the public sphere from the 1960s onwards. The works of the aforementioned prolific authors served to distill and impress upon these adolescents, the essence of the existential outlook. Sarah Bakewell’s recent article, highlights how existential thinking is still relevant to us today, going so far as to say that it offers a number of unique benefits in the realms of personal life, relationships and productivity. In an ever increasingly definition-rejecting age that seeks to define itself upon ones self rather than external measures or values, the ideals of existentialism that are distilled through theatre, film and literature are more important than ever.

Despite the apparent morbidity of existentialism, there is an optimism. The first response to questioning the purpose or value of a life that holds no external absolutes, is of despair. However, when the existential thinker is confronted with an absurd or confused world, and asks ‘Why am I here?’, the answer is one of positivity and, almost, enlightenment. The essence of existentialism is that human beings are able to transcend the futility of life through honesty and bravery in the face of an absurd world, advocating freedom, individuality and responsibility. To be ones self, is to be authentic, is to be an authentic human being.

“Rashomon” 1950

[1] Thomas R. Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 89.

[2] Simone de Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, quoted in Ronald Aronson, Camus and Sartre (University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 48.

[3] Ronald Aronson, Camus and Sartre (University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 48.

French existentialism and the fight against paternalism

Rosie GermainDr. Rosie Germain lectures in modern history at Cambridge University, the University of North Carolina, and Liverpool Hope University.  She gained her BA in history from Oxford University, her MA in history from King’s College London, and her PhD in history from Cambridge University.  Rosie is interested in how and why moral systems change.

In this blog post, Rosie argues that French existentialism had an impact in England and America that went beyond intellectual circles, and was used by various interest groups in the 1960s to publicly reject the paternalistic morality of the past.

In 1966, the American Civil Rights Movement fragmented.  Before this year, civil rights activists were united, in public at least, in their support of a policy of peaceful integration of white and black people.  One of the first black activists to publicly declare the death of integration was Stokely Carmichael.  Carmichael was the leader of a prominent civil rights organisation that had been ‘integrationist’ in the early 1960s: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  But in 1966, Carmichael called for black activists in the SNCC to achieve freedom through separatism, and to withdraw from mixed-race institutions.  In doing so, he quoted from the famous French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. Carmichael said that by becoming a black separatist, one was becoming what Sartre had called ‘an anti-racist racist’.[1]  Sartre had coined this term in 1948, and Carmichael believed that ‘anti-racist racism’ – or exclusion of whites from black organisations – would allow African-Americans to recover from the sense of inferiority created by white cultural and social dominance. [2]


Stokely Carmichael, the head of the largest Civil Rights organisation in 1966, the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, (SNCC), lectures about black separatism.  Carmichael used Sartre’s term, ‘anti-racist racism’, to label a way of being which embraced black difference. Image: https://celebrityscope.net

For historians, Carmichael’s use of Sartre’s terminology is interesting.  It indicates the impact that public intellectuals, such as the French existentialists, can have on cultural and social change.  In this case, Sartre provided a new term and idea that changed a reference point in public debate.  Sartre reinforced black separatist aspiration by providing a language through which to express it.  In this blog post, I discuss some of the ways in which French existentialism was used by social groups to call for change in post-war Britain and America.  The examples demonstrate how French existentialism was used by activists to make a public rupture with the social relations of the past.  Before WWII, social relations were often paternalistic.  Paternalism was an ideology which aimed to reduce social anxiety by keeping different social groups segregated, allotting them distinct and separate roles. A range of groups were perceived to be free under paternalism because they were protected – women were protected by men, students by academics, and blacks by whites.  Paternalism had actually eroded in the inter war period – for instance all adult women got the vote in Britain in 1928, thereby challenging ideas they needed political ‘protection’ from men.  Nevertheless, paternalist thought patterns persisted into the post-war period, and were only pointedly attacked, with the help of French existentialism and the legacy of Nazism, in the 1960s.

But firstly, what was French existentialism, and how did these French ideas enter usage in America and Britain in the 1960s?  French existentialism rose to prominence in France, England and America in 1945, after France was liberated from German Occupation. Two of its adherents who I look at here, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, were part of the resistance to the Nazi Occupation.

Beauvoir and Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the leaders of French existentialism.  Photo taken in the early 1960s. Image credits: STF, AFP; The Guardian

At the core of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s writings was the idea that human consciousness was defined by an individual’s ability to create their own self.[3]  They argued that the most moral societies were those in which humans were free to create their own identities.  They noted that moral individuals were those who took the responsibility to choose their identities rather than unthinkingly fitting themselves into pre-conceived identities such as ‘mother’ or ‘waiter’.[4]   The existential challenge to pre-determined social roles was in tension with paternalism, although this connection would not seriously be made by readers until the 1950s.  In the 1940s, French existentialism was seen as a philosophy of individual freedom rather than totalitarian oppression.  This reason alone was enough for publishers and journalists from allied countries to celebrate the philosophy in 1945 as a symbol of the triumph of freedom over Nazi despotism.  Interest in France also stemmed from more long-standing reasons than the conditions of WWII.  In both England and America, France was historically associated with cultural sophistication. Important figures in literary circles who first discussed and published the existentialists, people such as Alfred Knopf (USA) and Cyril Connolly (UK), were keen Francophiles.

I.  French existentialism and black freedom

Existentialists applied their philosophy to criticise social relationships that frustrated individual freedom.  Sartre argued that in societies that were racially mixed but where white people alone held power, black cultural difference was repressed and black freedom denied.  Sartre’s ideas of black difference settled in cultural debate in America in the 1940s and 1950s and were used in celebrations of African culture that did not cross over into political debate.[5]  In these decades, black civil rights activists were integrationist – calling for black people to gain access to white dominated institutions. Sartre’s ideas of black difference did not fit into this political agenda geared to creating sameness between black and white people.  However, integration looked as though it had failed by the late 1960s.  This was partly because the slowness of the American government to make it happen made it transparent that white people were deciding when black people would become free. The value of integration was also questioned in America because African nations, such as Algeria, were pursuing an opposite policy: they were fighting for independence, and therefore separation, from their white colonizers. Leaders of civil rights organisations who had formerly supported integration used Sartre’s idea to redefine integration as a paternalist policy that made black people dependent on whites.  This is the context in which  Stokely Carmichael used Sartre’s idea when speaking to a crowd of 10,000 Berkeley students in 1966:

Now we maintain that we cannot have white people working in the black community, and we mean it on a psychological ground. The fact is that all black people often question whether or not they are equal to whites, because every time they start to do something, white people are around showing them how to do it.    Black people must be seen in positions of power, doing and articulating for themselves, for themselves … We must wage a psychological battle on the right for black people to define themselves as they see fit.

That is not to say that one is a reverse racist; it is to say that one is moving in a healthy ground; it is to say what the philosopher Sartre says: one is becoming an “anti-racist racist.”[6]

Carmichael justified black separatism through reference to Sartre.  Sartre didn’t invent separatism, but his high profile combined with the fact that he coined a term, ‘anti-racist racism’, that could be used to visualise an alternative to integration, meant that he became central to the black separatists’ rejection of old-style paternalist relations between black and white.

II. French existentialism and female freedom

In The Second Sex (first English transl. 1953), Simone de Beauvoir argued that modern societies that assumed women needed to be protected by men, and kept women in the home, upheld myths that men and women were fundamentally different because of their biology.[7]  She noted that this myth oppressed women because it prohibited them from entering education or work on equal terms with men.  Betty Friedan, a journalist for women’s magazines that promoted female domesticity, challenged the ideology of the magazines after reading de Beauvoir. Commissioned by the Ladies Home Journal in 1957 to write about whether universities were suitably preparing women for their role in the home, Friedan reversed the question and asked whether the role in the home was, in fact, suitable for women with a university education.[8]   In 1975, Betty Friedan attributed this conceptual leap from acceptance to rejection of the paternalist settlement to de Beauvoir.  She noted that

it was The Second Sex that introduced me to an existential approach to reality and political responsibility – that, in effect, freed me from the rubrics of authoritative ideology and led me to whatever original analysis of women’s existence I have been able to contribute to the Women’s Movement and to its unique politics.[9]

Friedan launched Second Wave Feminism with a work in which she challenged the naturalness of a woman’s domesticity in The Feminine Mystique in 1963.  Friedan also campaigned for an end to workplace discrimination against women through the National Organisation for Women (NOW), an organisation that she co-founded in 1966.


Betty Friedan speaks in New York’s Central Park in August 1971. Image credit: AP, The Telegraph

III.  French existentialism and student freedom

While French existentialism was grounded in the writings of two of the most highly trained academic philosophers in France, philosophy students in Britain weren’t even taught existential philosophy at university.  Instead, British philosophy students consumed a diet composed mainly of analytic philosophy – a tradition in which sentence construction was analysed.  The 1960s was a time of university reform in Britain, when the government turned its attention to the function of the university in society.  In this broader context of university reform, the contrast between the existential philosophy of freedom, and the analytic philosophy of sentences, prompted students to challenge the leadership of academics. They saw analytic philosophy as a way to perpetuate the status quo, and a way for academics to prevent their students from challenging the organisation of society.  In 1968, one student at Oxford, Jairus Banaji, argued that analytic philosophy was a:

degeneration, lacking the essential anthropological foundation, [it] is a sterile and vacuous mental gymnastics, abstract and useless except as a consolidation of existing modes of thought. In particular, linguistic philosophy intellectually justifies and corroborates the world of ordinary discourse or ‘common sense’ which Gramsci called the ‘practical wisdom’ of the ruling classes.[10]

Banaji argued that Sartre’s philosophy of human action should be taught instead of analytic philosophy as:

The Critique [Sartre’s work] stands out as an indictment of the … structure of bourgeois- ideological indoctrination … Sartre’s critics refuse to recognise his relevance, greater now than ever before, perhaps because they are not equipped for the task ideologically … they are afraid.[11]

For students who read existentialism, just as with women and African-Americans, the philosophy exposed current relationships between adults with power and those without as damaging to freedom and as inhibiting change.  They used existentialism to challenge paternalism and to visualise equality.

IV.  The legacy of Nazism

These individuals used existentialism to imagine a positive alternative to the paternalistic settlement.  The effectiveness of their use of existentialism to construct a new vision of the future was augmented by their deconstruction of the present by comparing it with Nazism.  In his 1966 Berkeley speech, Stokely Carmichael argued that, as a black American, he needed to point out American racism because for white Americans to identify it, they would have to negate themselves.  He referred to Nazis to illuminate his point, noting that most Nazis who accepted their crimes committed suicide, those who didn’t accept their responsibility for mass-murder could live with themselves.  In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan referred to suburban homes as ‘comfortable concentration camps’, and to women who entered housewifery as walking to their own deaths in the same ways as Jews who entered concentration camps.[12] In 1968, in the Oxford University student magazine, journalists expressed fear that centralised systems that give plenary control to one group resembled those ‘which allowed the rise of the Nazis in the early thirties’.[13]  Such reference to Nazism fitted alongside calls to Marxist revolution[14], and arguments like Banaji’s to motivate students to challenge the authoritarian structure of the British university.[15]

The sixties were special as this was when individuals used existentialism (as well as other philosophies) to make a public rupture with the paternalist consensus of the past. Activists of the 1960s who changed by reading existentialism, such as the African-Americans, women, and students considered here, argued that human happiness was connected with freedom to create oneself.  The legacy of Nazism had heightened the importance of this ideal of self-creation, and French existentialists had demonstrated how such ideas of freedom could not be realised through existing social relationships.   Existential philosophers therefore provided some of the energy for the public’s distancing from the mores of past, and the self-conscious embrace of new ideas of freedom and self-hood, which was so characteristic of the 1960s.


[1] Stokely Carmichael, ‘Berkeley speech (1966)’ in (ed.) Ethel Minor, Stokely Speaks (1971).

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Orphée Noir’ in (ed.) Léopold Sédar Senghor, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue Française (1948).

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and nothingness (first published in English in 1958, page references in this blog post are taken from the University Paperback edition, 1969); Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex (first published in English in 1953, page references in this blog post are taken from Vintage edition, 1997).

[4] Sartre, Being and nothingness, p. 59; de Beauvoir, The second sex, pp. 501 – 542.

[5] Mercer Cook, ‘Review of Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue Française : précédée  de Orphée Noir by L. Sédar Senghor’, The Journal of Negro History, 34 (1949), p. 239.

[6] Stokely Carmichael, ‘Berkeley speech (1966)’ in (ed.) Ethel Minor, Stokely Speaks (1971).

[7] de Beauvoir, The second sex, p. 734

[8] Betty Friedan, ‘Up from the kitchen floor’, New York Times (Nov. 4th, 1973).

[9] Betty Friedan, ‘No Gods, No Goddesses’, The Saturday Review (June 14th, 1975).

[10] Jairus Banaji, ‘Towards a critique of Oxford philosophy’, Oxford Left, II, 2 (1968).

[11] Jairus Banaji, ‘Sartre’, Oxford Left, II, 3 (1968).

[12] This has been argued in Kirsten Fermaglich, ‘The Significance of Nazi Imagery in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963)’ in American Jewish History 91.2 (2003) 205-232.

[13] The Isis, 29 May, 1968, p. 16.

[14] The Isis, 16 October, 1968, p. 15.

[15] The Isis, 29 May, 1968, p. 18.

Philosophy from the outside in

Welcome to the new Cultural History of Philosophy blog at Queen Mary University of London.

The main aim of this blog – and of the QMUL undergraduate module it accompanies – is to take a fresh approach to the history of philosophy, by exploring the ways that philosophers and philosophies have shaped public life, popular culture, and personal identity – sometimes in unnoticed and unconscious ways. This will be a kind of history that approaches philosophical texts and ideas from the outside in – starting with perspectives from social and cultural history rather than within the pages of canonical works of philosophy. Sometimes the history of philosophy has been taught as a branch of philosophy. Here it will be treated as a branch of history.

The two images below of the English philosophical writer Colin Wilson capture visually some of the issues I hope this blog and the module it accompanies will explore. Wilson’s 1956 book The Outsider, brought existentialist ideas to the British public in a newly fashionable form, and catapulted Wilson to overnight celebrity status. You can read more about Wilson, who died in 2013, in an obituary in the Telegraph, in an essay for Aeon magazine by Ken MacLeod, and in a blog post by Rob Baker – which are also the sources for the photographs below.

The first photograph below shows the philosopher in a cluttered domestic setting, with a mug, leftover breakfast things, and an empty bottle hinting at the hedonism of the night before. This is a kitchen-sink existentialist for the era of the kitchen-sink drama. As so often, the figure of the philosopher here is a man. But what are we, as viewers of this studiedly bohemian scene, supposed to think about the woman reclining in the background (in fact Wilson’s girlfriend Joy)? Is she Wilson’ intellectual equal and partner in philosophical dialogue? Is she a pupil sitting at a philosophical master’s feet, or perhaps a budding Simone de Beauvoir in her own right? Or do the position and pose of the hazy feminine figure suggest a more sensual connection between the two?

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson in 1956. Photo by Mark Kauffman//Time Life Pictures/Getty

The second image of Wilson shows him alone on Hampstead Heath in his sleeping bag. Part of Wilson’s appeal as a philosophical persona was that he conformed to various established cultural types, including the working-class autodidact (he was the son of a Leicester factory-hand and left school at sixteen) and the romantic genius (Wilson was never shy about applying the term ‘genius’ to himself). The publicity for The Outsider included the claim that Wilson had spent his days in the British Museum reading room, and his nights in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath while working on the book. Although the heath is an enclosed green area in an urban setting, the image is suggestive of another face of the philosopher – the romantic confronting and communing with nature – leaning against, if not hugging, a tree.

Colin Wilson on Hampstead Heath

Colin Wilson on Hampstead Heath in 1956. Image: http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/

The iconography surrounding Colin Wilson and The Outsider seem an appropriate starting point for a new exploration into the history of philosophy starting from the outside. Wilson’s class, lifestyle and appearance – including his trademark polo-neck, spectacles, and sandals – were as important as his ideas. Wilson remained an outsider to academic philosophy throughout his life, and soon became an outsider to the fashionable literary and intellectual worlds he had briefly entered too. His career offers some telling examples of the ways that philosophies and philosophers, both within and outside the academic discipline of philosophy, have shaped our cultural history – in modern Britain and more broadly.

I hope that others interested in this subject – historians, philosophers, journalists, students, readers, thinkers, existentialists, autodidacts and romantic geniuses of all kinds – might also like to write for the Cultural History of Philosophy Blog.

In future posts I will write a bit more about the kind of thing I’d like to see on the blog myself, but if you already know that you would like to propose a short research essay, book review, or anything else to be published here, then please do email me at t.m.dixon@qmul.ac.uk with your idea, or make contact via Twitter @ThomasDixon2015.