Jean-Paul Sartre & Existentialism

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Jean-Paul Sartre was an author whose work centered around existentialism, the idea that a person is responsible for deciding where they want to be in life. Study Sartre's views on reality, absurdity, bad faith, and the definition of existentialism. Updated: 11/03/2021

Jean Paul Sartre

If you've ever wanted to start over or throw caution to the wind, today's lesson is for you! Rather than feeling guilty about your desire for freedom, let's take a look at Jean Paul Sartre's existentialism, which sort of tells you to go for it!

For starters, Jean Paul Sartre was a famous 20th-century existentialist who authored many works, including plays, novels, screenplays, stories and philosophic essays. Two of his most famous philosophical works are 'Existentialism and Humanism' and 'Being and Nothingness.' Existentialism is a philosophy that recognizes a person as free to decide the course of his or her own life and actions. In other words, I'm in charge of me, and you're in charge of you!

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Jean Grimshaw's Critique of Essentialism

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:04 Jean Paul Sartre
  • 0:54 Reality
  • 1:49 Absurdity
  • 3:14 Bad Faith
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed


According to Sartre's existential philosophy, there are two types of reality. There is the reality of existence in itself, and the reality of existence for itself. Admittedly, this stuff gets rather tricky, so hold on!

If something exists in itself, it simply is because it is. Rather than living consciously for itself, it is an object of consciousness. Take the screen you're now staring at. It's a screen simply because it's a screen. Without consciousness or pride in being a screen, it can do nothing more than be a screen. It just exists in itself as a screen.

On the contrary, if something exists for itself it has consciousness and choice. It has a desire for being. It is not bound to some predetermined path of what it should be. It is the master of its own course, the captain of its own ship!


According to Sartre's famous work, 'Being and Nothingness,' we humans have traded in the reality of an existence for ourselves for a life of existence in ourselves. Stating it simply, we've let our governments, our money, and our religions turn us into objects. Rather than living a life of choice and possibility, we're just screens regurgitating what we've been programmed to regurgitate.

According to Sartre and his existential cronies, absolute freedom to choose is what makes us human. Therefore, we must stop trading freedom for absurdity, the idea that things must be as they are simply because they are as they are!

Really working to hit this point home in the aforementioned, 'Being and Nothingness', Sartre used a story of a waiter. It went something like this:

While observing the waiter, Sartre became appalled by how seriously the waiter took his job. The waiter walked briskly, stood at attention, and spoke ever so perfectly to his customers. He bowed, he schmoozed, and he placated.

Witnessing this, Sartre was hit with the realization that the waiter was more waiter than human. He had let his job (and his attachment to the money he gets from his job) turn him into an object that was doing the job, rather than a person that just so happened to have the job. Gone was his sense of freedom and possibility. It had been traded in for an apron and a tray.

Bad Faith

Using the example of the waiter, Sartre takes the position that we all have traded in life for what he coined bad faith. To Sartre, bad faith is the belief that things have to be a certain way. In short, we are victims to circumstance rather than victors with consciousness. Sartre argues that we have done this due to anguish. Anguish is caused by the reality that we are free to choose.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account