I started to read Sartre in Paris. I woke early on Wednesday morning, took a shower and went down to the lobby at the hostel I stayed in for cheapness. I had some breakfast. One good thing that can be said about French hotel breakfasts is that you want to get away as fast as possible and go for real coffee.
So I sat down at a nearby bar with a cup of café au lait and started on “L’existentialisme est un humanisme”. Isn’t that cool: reading Sartre in a café in Paris? It was a bright morning promising a varm day, Paris waking up, water flooding the gutters and the smell of chlorine from shopkeepers cleaning the front steps. I sat reading for an hour or so till my daughter rang and I took the Metro to meet her at the Gare du Nord.
It was October 1945 and the WWII had just ended. Two strong forces in France was the Catholics and the Communists and they did not like Sartre and his existentialist philosophy at all. What these two “ideologies” had in common was the reference to something external to humanity: god or the party. I don’t want to step on anyones toes here – but that was the context. For Sartre there was nothing but humankind itself. He was accused for putting forward a cheerless philosophy, without hope, focused on the dark sides of life. The talk at the Club Maintenant, written up as “L’existentialisme est un humanisme” was his answer to his adverseries.
The first half of the text is very clear. I read the text in Swedish and my interpretation (which I now have to phrase in English) is that you have to make your own decisions in life and they are your own responsibility. There is no higher authority to refer to or hide behind or use as an excuse. You are born into a society with constraints, rules and laws – but you can still act – and the decisions are yours. And what you decide certainly affects other human beings and influences what happens next.
This is indeed a harsh philosophy. But it is liberating – I agree with Sartre – you do have a choice and you can at least try.
Then in the second half of the text, when he starts to argue with himself, then I loose track.
So what does this have to do with my project? This project of mine – to go to the US and discuss and study mathematics teaching at Liberal Arts colleges – was all my own idea. Certainly it was conceived of in a context of discussions among other academic teachers from many other disciplines interested in how the Liberal Arts tradition could help improve Swedish higher education. It took me over a year to figure out how to even start the process and I had lots of doubts of the relevance of it all. I worked on a letter to Colleges for months not knowing if I ever would be able to summon the courage to send it.
Finally, I realized that I had to hit the send button because no-one else would.
That’s existentialism for me.