Beyond Free Will: An Alternative Paradigm in Existentialism

White house on hill

Artwork by Joanna Borkowska

On July 10th 1927, two years before she meets Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir writes in her diary, “The theme is almost always this opposition of self and other that I felt upon starting to live. Now has come the time to make a synthesis of it.” That synthesis becomes a revolutionary theory of human freedom developed between Beauvoir and Sartre in the years of fervent activity during and immediately after the Second World War.

Interest in French existentialism persists after more than 75 years in part because it is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility. It is an entry point for many young philosophers, myself included, even when it is not in vogue in English-speaking philosophy departments. Existentialism persists because people continue to see it as a compelling description of their own consciousness, its processes, and how freedom manifests in our own lives. Existential freedom, or radical freedom, cuts through the pseudo-problems raised by a poorly theorized concept of the “free will.”

I will try to show existential freedom to be beyond free will, an alternative way to think about human action, its spontaneity, and our responsibility for those spontaneous acts. It is a view that takes us beyond determinism, in which we are not free because we are nothing other than the consequences of causal forces over which we have no control, and beyond libertarian free will where humans are unmoved movers who remain unaffected by external causes while still able to intervene as causes themselves. Splitting the difference is a popular but ultimately incoherent view – compatibilism – which holds the world to be deterministic in-itself while allowing enough room for a free will to exist alongside the causal chain.

Sartre and Beauvoir could be poorly interpreted as sort-of-compatibilists who recognize the unchosen material conditions into which we are thrown while reclaiming our freedom from the deterministic push and pull of history. Or, perhaps more convincingly, Sartre could be read as a libertarian, with “radical freedom” meaning that we can choose ourselves at any moment, free to make fundamental changes in ourselves without interference from causal mechanisms. The moniker certainly fits his politics, at least the libertarian socialism Sartre came to embrace as he navigated Marxism toward a kind of anarchism.

I want to explain why these interpretations of existential freedom are wrongheaded and, in so doing, show that existentialism offers a distinct theoretical framework for thinking through the relation between freedom and the will, one that abandons narrow focus on “free will,” advocating instead for an ontologically robust, situated freedom.


Understanding existential freedom requires a striking paradigm realignment. To see how radically our outlook changes, let’s begin with the popular theories and clarify existentialism by way of contrast. Roderick Chisholm’s 1964 Lindley Lecture, “Human Freedom and the Self,” delivered at the University of Kansas, provides an excellent starting point. My interest here lies not in Chisholm’s arguments for agent causation, but rather in how the problem of determinism is epistemologically framed. The central question is whether it is possible to know the material conditions in which a person makes their decisions well enough to predict their precise course of action. Recognizing the epistemological set-up helps us understand how existentialism stakes out its own philosophical grounds. To that end, Chisholm makes a helpful distinction between two views, which he calls “Hobbist” (in reference to Hobbes) and “Kantian.”

On the Hobbist view we imagine Laplace’s Demon, armed with knowledge of the location and trajectory of every physical aspect of a person and their situation. With complete knowledge of the physical state, the Demon, or anyone adequately knowledgeable, would be able to predict a person’s future actions with certainty. Hobbes argues that God has free will because His will is not determined by anything prior to it. But human beings do not have free will in the sense that they could not choose what in particular they actually will. Thus, we are free only insofar as our will is not opposed in the world. Our actions are voluntary in a limited sense, as our ends are determined by causal states prior to our willing. If we learn enough about these prior conditions, a person’s future will could be determined. According to Chisholm, this Hobbist view is the heart of determinism. Get enough of the cold, hard facts and the mysteries of human action melt away, becoming just another calculation. Given the total picture, no one could have done other than they did.

No such calculation is possible on the Kantian view. Chisholm focuses on a feature of Kantian autonomy, isolating it from Kant’s larger system. Under this view, human beings choose their own ends and, in so doing, sever the will from prior causal forces that determine it. Because human beings choose their own ends and don’t simply follow through on ends fated for them, they are self-directed and unpredictable. There is no necessary predictive connection between a person’s past states and what they might will or not will to do.

In his account of the Hobbist picture, Chisholm has effectively reinstated the theological problem of Divine Foreknowledge in a secular context. If there is a theoretical position from which all the relevant facts can be known – a “God’s eye view” – then free will is compromised. Just replace “God” with Laplace’s Demon or a supercomputer or Benjamin Libet’s debated neurophysiological findings that there is some activity in brain regions associated with action in the nanoseconds prior to our becoming conscious of the decision to act, and then dust our hands of free will and its messy metaphysics. A science of the gaps instead of a god. Beauvoir and Sartre, however, explicitly reject the theological presuppositions uncritically smuggled into the terms of the debate. Emphasizing the inevitable finitude that results from situating any particular knower within an historical context, Sartre especially argues that no God’s eye view can be obtained. Since there is no position from which all relevant facts of the matter could be known, there is simply no problem of foreknowledge. The Hobbist’s calculation is impossible.

Sartre is explicit about this in a posthumously published work written around 1948 and available in English translation as Truth and Existence. Acknowledging the theological assumptions that would make the epistemological project of attaining all the relevant facts possible, Sartre allows that we can theoretically postulate a totality of all the facts – this is Hegel’s Absolute Knowledge. However, such a totality could be revealed only to an absolute-subject – that is, a subject to whom the totality of all existence could be revealed as an object of cognition, a subjectivity that could “take it all in” and grasp the totality at once, meaning it exists outside of time. But given that we are all the little individual subjects that we are, our views of the facts and of history are limited by our perspective within a determinate historical situation. We cannot create an absolute-subject via supercomputers either, because such a creation will always issue from human projects, with ends set by humans, and these contingent strictures reintroduce finitude into any epistemological state produced by the imagined supercomputer. There is no problem of foreknowledge in atheistic existentialism because the absolute-subjectivity required for knowledge of the totality is impossible, even if we can speculate about such a point of view. The mere conceivability of an absolute-subject means nothing in the face of its practical impossibility.

According to Sartre, truth is an historical occurrence, because it depends upon a knower of the truth, and we, as knowers, are historical. All truth as we know it emerges from the history of human truth-seeking. Sartre thus falls squarely on the “Kantian” side of Chisholm’s divide when it comes to freedom and the will. Existentialism severs the logical connection between wanting and doing – a connection on which the Hobbist depends if they are to infer action from the total state of affairs leading to the action. “No set of statements about a man’s desires, beliefs, and stimulus situation at any time,” writes Chisholm, “implies any statement telling us what the man will try, set out, or undertake to do at that time.” Citing Thomas Reid, Chisholm allows that we can predict people’s behaviour within some measure of probability and might do so reliably with people whose past behaviour and situation are well known to us, but we will never do so with “absolute certainty.” Even those we know very well may surprise us from time to time. Beauvoir and Sartre agree.

We have reached a parting of ways. As we turn to the theory of existential freedom espoused by Sartre and Beauvoir, note how the language of “the will” is absent from the beginning. Existential freedom is a freedom “deeper than the will,” as Sartre says in Being and Nothingness. We must attend to this absence early on, for it is our best clue as to why existentialism is so poorly received in contemporary philosophy, as well as why it offers a real alternative to the free will vs. determinism framework.


To better understand what Sartre and Beauvoir argue, keep their Kantian orientation in mind. In both paper and book versions of Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Christine Korsgaard draws attention to an important element of Kant’s theory of autonomy. It entails two distinct perspectives from which to view human action. One is the subjective, first-personal point of view from which decisions are made, pros and cons are weighed, and in which we feel our freedom manifest. The other is the objective view where we appear as just another object buffeted about in the causal chain, the body in its push and pull with the world and with itself. Kant places ultimate emphasis on the subjective. Freedom is expressed through our essence as autonomous subjectivities capable of self-governance in accordance with rational laws. The determinist takes the other side. We are essentially material bodies. Everything is reducible to that, including our wants and desires, and there is nothing “over and above” the physical network of causal forces of which we are an unfree part.

Existentialism positions us in a dialectical movement between subjective and objective existence. Beauvoir especially places a fundamental ambiguity at the heart of human existence. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, she writes that “As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it. They have striven to reduce mind to matter, or to reabsorb matter into mind, or to merge them within a single substance.” The achievement of Existentialism, if it is to be successful on Beauvoir’s terms, is to hold this ambiguity in view without reducing it, without collapsing one side into the other, to navigate between our objective existence and the subjectivity through which we live that existence.

If there is a dualism in existentialism, it is epistemological only – that to understand human existence requires us to move smoothly between two ways of viewing the human condition, oscillating between our objective existence and our subjective experience of that objective situation. It is to recognize subjective experience as an objective fact of the world. As Sartre says, the “subject-object duality” is “purely logical.”

Sartre’s adaptation of Hegelian terminology, most significantly the “for-itself” and “in-itself,” makes it easy to misread him as a Cartesian dualist. These terms are foundational to the analyses throughout Being and Nothingness, and capture the fundamental ambiguity sketched above. As an in-itself, I am just another object in the world, a body that ages, and on which the indifferent forces of the world press themselves. However, as a for-itself, I am aware of my situation, of the future and its possibilities, and I am concerned for my own being, which becomes an issue for me, and I live or die by the choices I make. To understand these technical distinctions, and thus the theory of freedom couched in them, it is helpful to consider the context in which existentialism developed as a phenomenological project – and thus with theoretical ties to Descartes’ foundational project.

In the winter of 1933-34, Sartre travelled to Berlin to take over Raymond Aron’s post at the Institut français d’Allemagne. By taking up Husserl’s phenomenological method, Sartre follows a philosophical path he sees as issuing from Descartes’ Discourse and Meditations. The earnest methodological pursuit, coupled with the fervour for Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit being generated among French students by Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hippolite, led Sartre to begin his analysis from the subjective point of view, from “I think, therefore…” Methodological solipsism dominates the first and formative sections of Being and Nothingness as a result. Sartre’s path begins with a singular consciousness and moves toward the shared world to show that the two are co-dependent, existing within a synthesis that does not annihilate either part. There is a lengthy and significant refutation of metaphysical solipsism in the key opening chapter of Part Three of Being and Nothingness, necessitated by Sartre’s chosen path. The existential theory of freedom is discovered along the way. Consciousness and freedom are intimately entwined. Because freedom lies at the ontological break that originally constitutes consciousness, Sartre argues that it must be prior to any will. Freedom cannot be a property of the will, for freedom is the ontological condition that makes willing possible. Hence, a freedom deeper than the will.

Existentialism explains consciousness like this: We are temporal beings. We live a life in time. We have our time, do things in time, waste time, and kill it. In the end, we are a segment of time, this brief duration. Consciousness has its flow, the familiar stream. It is not possible to reduce subjectivity to a point on a timeline. Consciousness is not even identical with itself. Rather, consciousness is constituted in its very failure to be self-identical. Consciousness is diasporic in that it is spread out over time.

There is an event. Consciousness arises. This event is an act of negation. Nothingness is the schism that sets consciousness into motion. Consciousness is awakened by the eruption of nothingness into being, a break in being that constitutes an entity capable of recognizing itself and other beings. It can do so only by an original negation whereby consciousness acknowledges it is something distinct, that it is ­not the world, that it does not merely coincide with its surroundings. The first act of consciousness is to free itself, to pull itself back from the world so that the world can appear to it as an object. Thus, consciousness is synonymous with freedom. To be conscious is to be freed, to be awakened from the silent night of the in-itself and to have your light shed suddenly upon the world so that things can appear to you, so that whatever enters your field of sense might become an object of experience. The for-itself is born.

The will is not even a point of concern. For Sartre and Beauvoir, the question is not whether human beings have a will and then whether or not that will is free. Human freedom is a matter of our entire existence, of our whole being, brain, gut, history, and all. When we talk about “radical freedom” in Sartre, we should not interpret it to mean one is “radically” free to do whatever one wills at any given time. No, instead, we understand “radical” to mean central to human existence, something shot through our very core and from which nearly every aspect of our being radiates.

Thus far, I’ve presented in Sartre’s merely formal register. If freedom was simply a formal “nothingness,” it would be contentless and ultimately ineffective. A merely theoretical freedom cannot act. Real freedom is lived in the concrete, so freedom must be given a determinate content on which to act, since freedom names the possibility of action. Every real freedom is a situated freedom. A person without the world in which they live cannot really be free because they would lack a definite situation in which actions take on meaning and significance. Without the world, we could never formulate an end or goal, which is always something toward which we aim in the particular context of our life. Life is situated.

I keep returning to Gilles Deleuze’s observation that, for Sartre:

The “situation” is not a concept among others…but the pragmatic element that transforms everything, and without which concepts have neither meaning nor structure. A concept has no structure or meaning as long as it is not situated. The situation is the functioning of the concept itself.

Without the world in which we live, all actions, ends, anything for which our freedom is actually useful, are meaningless. Indeed, we need some notion of “determinism” for our free actions to have any significance at all. If we could not conceive of the world as some sort of causal network, the simplest act would be inconceivable, because we would not grasp that a certain consequence might follow from one act or another, or that two or more wholly distinct consequences might emerge by taking one course of action over another. We would have no reason to anticipate anything.

Recall Beauvoir’s idea, recorded in her student diary, that a key philosophical theme for her was “the opposition of self and other that I felt upon starting to live.” Beauvoir doesn’t commit herself to a philosophical program in the way that Sartre does. While Sartre is muddling through a thicket of metaphysical and epistemological entanglements, Beauvoir starts at an ethics. In “Pyrrhus and Cineas,” written in 1944 after persistent requests that she pen a philosophical treatise, we can see Beauvoir approaching conclusions close to Sartre, but with her own commitment to the pre-eminence of ethics clearly conveyed.

“A man is freedom and facticity at the same time,” writes Beauvoir. “He is free, but not with that abstract freedom posited by the Stoics; he is free in situation.” She goes on, “We are therefore never anything but an instrument for the other, even when we are an obstacle, like the air that supports Kant’s dove while resisting it.”

Beauvoir cuts to the heart of things. In the arguments we’ve heard from Chisholm and Sartre, there is a similar sort of methodological solipsism. For the free will debate, framed around determinism and libertarian free will, the primary site of contention lies between the individual and the world. It is the world itself, the metaphysical status of causation, that threatens our freedom. But Beauvoir makes it very clear, and Sartre reinforces her from a certain theoretical position, that we cannot be free without the world. My freedom is bound up with the very appearance of the world as such.


Picture 1901 "Interior en la calle Strand"

Beauvoir shapes Sartre’s theory of freedom by insisting that at heart the question of human freedom is an ethical question. Freedom matters only in community with others. Robinson Crusoe is not faced with the question of freedom; his question is that of survival. And he needs the world even for that – there’s no air in a vacuum and one must breathe. It is only through other people that the question of freedom is revealed because it is to others that I justify myself and before whom I am justified or not. The question of freedom simultaneously raises that of responsibility because it is others who hold me responsible and for whom I hold myself responsible. If I do hold myself to account for something I alone demand, I hold myself accountable as another, a future self that I am not yet.

The ethical dimension of the free will question is not at all lost in contemporary discussion. Consider Gregg Caruso and Owen Flanagan, two neurophilosophers who have recently attempted to co-opt the name of “existentialism” into the service of determinism. Caruso in particular argues that the truth of determinism means we should abandon the theories of moral responsibility that structure our legal system, our ideas about retributive justice, and seriously consider radical prison reforms. But in fact, “neuroexistentialism” is not an existentialism at all. It is really an anti-existentialism because it denies human freedom wholesale in favour of determinism. Existentialism is a philosophy of freedom and no philosophy that denies human freedom can reasonably be called “existentialism” – however it is qualified.

In the introduction to their anthology, Neuroexistentialism, Caruso and Flanagan attribute the libertarian theory of free will to Sartre and place him with Descartes and Chisholm as thinking that “we are capable of exercising sui generis kinds of agency and an unconditional ability to do otherwise.” I have already shown that for existentialism, all action is conditioned. There is no unconditional ability to act or do otherwise because action itself is always conditioned and the material conditions of our existence are exactly those things through which we actualize our freedom.

From the standpoint of existentialism, neurophilosophers conceive of the will as a purely theoretical object with no substantial relation to the actual world of objects. In The Transcendence of the Ego, written in 1937, Sartre had already defended the idea that consciousness existed in the same matter as everything else – it was the same material “substance” – and it was precisely through material existence that consciousness had the particular content that occupied it and on which it could act. Caruso and Flanagan misread Sartre when they attribute to him the claim that, “I (as a responsible agent) am not simply another object in the world.” Sartre does not claim we are supernatural beings, willing acts from beyond a naturalistic causal order. But existentialism does argue that we are unusual objects in that our existence as an object in the world matters to us, that we are aware of and concerned for our own being, and that we work to persist in the world. Consciousness is an awakening to our material situation in the world.

The “free will” that Caruso and Flanagan attribute to existentialism is an empty abstraction, so they are right to deny it. Sartre and Beauvoir would both agree on that point. Because the problem of free will is conceived to be a metaphysical matter between myself and the world, philosophers tend to work from examples of isolated, individual actions, and follow Aristotle in considering a stick that is moved by a hand that is moved by a man. In fact, Chisholm uses this example from Aristotle’s Physics as the epigraph to his 1964 book Human Freedom and the Self, and experiments like those run by Libet feature actions such as raising the hand and flicking the wrist. The free will paradigm is too focused on these “minimal actions”, and therefore misses the full picture of what goes on when we act, make decisions, and do anything we’d usually describe as “by our own free will.” Minimal actions do not extend past my body, and analyses of these acts are confined only to the moment, as if to identify the nanosecond in which our will gripped the wheel of fate. Everything is broken down into small time-slices, isolated from each other, and we, the actors, are alienated from our actions. In the analysis of these discrete parts, none of which by themselves amount to an agent, we lose sight entirely of the person who acts. Having become thus lost in our own details, we declare there is no action taking place and thus no freedom.

Although he is discussing Aquinas’ theory of action, Michael Bavidge could easily have Beauvoir and Sartre as subjects when he writes:

The issue of freedom should only be raised in the context of real people doing substantial intentional actions in messy circumstances (not, for example, wills producing volitions). Freedom is possible because there are many ways in which a finite, rational animal can experience, understand and evaluate situations, and then pursue the line of action that they have settled on.

Existential freedom treats decisions as spread out over time, because we are ourselves spread over time, and it is not strictly possible to catalogue all the ways we knowingly work toward a decision. Moments of reflection, intuitions, gut feelings, intense deliberation, talking with friends and peers, mentors and advisors, arguments, disappointments ­– decisions come from us, issuing from the confluence of all the conscious and unconscious processes by which we ultimately direct ourselves toward chosen goals.

For the neurophilosophers, the atomistic will rides along a timeline and, like a switch that throws itself, produces decisions right then and there, on the spot, sui generis, as Caruso and Flanagan say. But for existentialism, the decision is not sui generis. It arises from a personal history, from all the relations we hold with others, with social institutions and their histories, and with ourselves. This is not the same as saying we are enmeshed in an intractable causal chain. It is simply to indicate the situation in which we take action and through which our actions take on meaning and our intentions are rendered sensible. For the existentialists, an abstract freedom is not freedom.

Within this framework, Sartre argues that the will is an affective upsurgence from the wellspring of freedom that has “no value apart from that of an announcement.” To will is to feel ourselves affirmed as we leap finally into action. In existentialism, we have reached “a freedom that is deeper than the will,” as Sartre says. The first condition of action, whatsoever be our will, is freedom. Placed at the root of our being, it is in that sense that freedom is “radical” for the existentialist – everything human revolves around freedom.

The view of a strictly deterministic world then appears as a trick of perception. We get a strong sense of determinism only by focusing on the past to the exclusion of all else. Seen from the present, the past takes on the appearance of an object. Because it has happened already, events in the past, including human decisions, look completely determined. On the basis of this apparent objectivity, those like the neurophilosophers make a judgement and, interpreting everything according to their deterministic theory, mistakenly attribute simple push-pull mechanics to the world as it is in-itself. But this causal judgement is just that, a judgment about the past. The future is open and full of potential, of possibilities.

In the question-and-answer session that followed Sartre’s famous 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, Sartre emphasizes the abstract, mechanical nature of causality as it is preached by determinists. But in the concrete, causes are not sought in abstractions, but in a “unique set” composed of all the messy realities of history on the ground. Sartre argues that historical determinists misattribute mechanical causality to history, in which events in fact unfold probabilistically rather than deterministically, and in which human actions that are not reducible to mere neuronal firings is a factor in the outcome. An important function of our freedom is to affect these probabilities as we work our way toward a goal, hoping to achieve or avoid certain outcomes. We cannot control everything. We are emphatically not radically free in that sense. But we do try to secure certain outcomes to the best of our ability, taking what measures we can to actualize one potential future over others. As for the world in-itself, it is not causally determined in a strict mechanistic sense; existentialism thus rejects all but the softest determinisms.


As Beauvoir so elegantly observed:

We must assume our actions in uncertainty and risk, and this is precisely the essence of freedom. Freedom is not decided with a view to a salvation that would be granted in advance [salvation, for instance, from the causal order]. It signs no pact with the future. If it could be defined by the final point for which it aims, it would no longer be freedom.

As a theory of human freedom, existentialism allows us to step outside the dominant paradigm where the issue is framed as a choice between libertarian free will, determinism, and compatibilism. It is a paradigm that is better able to account for the feeling of our freedom, our choices, the material limits on that freedom, and how that freedom navigates the world. Existentialism has not been refuted, because few contemporary philosophers are able to recognize the truly radical nature of existential freedom, and instead falsely attribute their pet-theories of will and causality to the existentialists.

Placing us squarely in a situation among others who act from their own freedom, existentialism offers a freedom not only “deeper than the will,” but beyond it.

Donovan Irven is a philosopher, essayist, and novelist. He serves as the Director of Philosophical Praxis for Filo Sofi Arts, the Associate Editor of Analecta Hermeneutica, and provides philosophical consultation services through the Lawn Chair Philosophy Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter: @donovanirven.


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 1 ("The New Basics: Planet").

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