Human, All Too Human: Documentary Profiles in 3 Parts Nietzsche, Heidegger & Sartre

Certainly three of the most radical thinkers of the past 150 years, Nietzsche, Heideggerand Sartre were also three of the most controversial, and sometimes politically toxic, for their perceived links to totalitarian regimes. In Nietzsche’s case, the link to Nazism was totally spurious, concocted after his death by his anti-Semitic sister. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s philosophy is far from being favorable to equality, his politics, such as they are, highly undemocratic. The case of Heidegger is much more troubling, a member of the Nazi party, author of being and time notorious fascist views, made even clearer by the recent publication of his infamous “black notebooks.” And Sartre, author of Being and Nothingnesshas long been accused of supporting Stalinism – an accusation that can be oversimplifiedbut is not without some merit.

Despite these disturbing associations, the three philosophers are often presented as representatives, with Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus-of Existentialism, basically a philosophy of freedom against oppressive religious and political systems that seek to define and order human life according to predetermined values. Whether the three thinkers deserve the label (Heidegger, like Camus, flatly rejected it) is a matter of contention, and yet the BBC documentary series Human, too humannamed after Nietzsche’s 1878 collection of aphorismsloosely uses the term to tie them together, acknowledging that it had not yet been coined in Nietzsche’s time.

The first episode, top, introduces the great 19th-century German atheist through interviews with scholars and biographers of Nietzsche. The second episode covers Heidegger, with candid discussions of his Nazi Party affiliation and its implications for his thinking.

The third episode focuses on Sartre, the only thinker of the three to call himself an existentialist. Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir wrote on the subject, defending the philosophical perspective in essays and interviews.

In one of Sartre’s most famous defenses, “Existentialism and human emotionhe categorically defines his philosophical position as anti-essentialist and atheist, unlike the Christian Kierkegaard before him.

Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent. It affirms that if God does not exist, there is at least a being in which the existence precedes the essence, a being which exists before being able to be defined by any concept, and that this being is the man, or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What do we mean here by saying that existence precedes essence? This means that, first of all, man exists, presents himself, appears on the scene, and only then defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because he is first of all nothing. […] Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to design it. Not only is man what he conceives of himself, but he is still only what he wants to be after this thrust towards existence.

Existentialism became a vast web, used to capture the similarities in the work of otherwise widely divergent thinkers. However, the use of the term belongs historically to the 1940s and 1950s, to a movement as much literary as philosophical, and Sartre was its greatest champion and, some would say, the only true existentialist philosopher. Nonetheless, the label captures something of the boldness and danger of radical philosophy that redefines, or outright rejects, traditional norms. For all their flaws and contradictions, the three thinkers described above have made significant contributions to our understanding of what it means to be human – and to be an individual – in an increasingly mechanized, homogenized, and dehumanizing civilization.

Related content:

Walter Kaufmann’s Classic Lectures on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

Martin Heidegger talks about language, being, Marx and religion in interviews from the 1960s

Philosophy’s power couple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, featured in a 1967 TV interview

100 Free Online Philosophy Lessons

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness

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