Also known as Existentialism is a Humanism this is a work by Sartre based on a lecture he gave in 1945. Following this lecture, Sartre answered a number of questions regarding the lecture, both the lecture and the following discussion have been translated and published numerous times. The basic subject of the lecture was the idea that existentialism can be a humanist doctrine; the following questions were often criticisms of the lecture and the doctrine that Sartre was trying to present.
Thanks to Sartre’s writing this lecture is fairly easy to follow, even if occasionally difficult to understand fully. Sartre’s key assertion is that the existence of a person comes prior to their essence; there is nothing to determine a persons character, ambitions, and the like, and as such only they can define their own essence, “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards”. This assertion became key to the Existentialists, this lecture confirmed Sartre as a key member of the movement, especially as it was one of the first times he accepted that the term could be used about himself.
In the discussion, that follows the lecture, Sartre clearly and succinctly refutes the criticisms of the lecture. The power of this book lies more in Sartre’s rhetoric and passion about his philosophical ideas, than in the execution. In the years following the publication of the book, Sartre himself rejected some of the ideas that he had put forward. I think this is a good book to read for a brief introduction to Sartre and his philosophies, and wish I had read this before some of his bigger works, it is extremely accessible due to the style. However, it can only be viewed as a starting point, and one must understand that it is not definitive of Sartre’s philosophies.