We are a group of I.T.E.S.M. students and we would like to get some information about the concept
on "Fundamental Option", definition, application and links about the theme. We appreciate your help.
"Fundamental option", "initial choice", "fundamental project" are all various terms attached to the idea,
found in Sartre of an original choice.
In Sartre's existential philosophy people are to be understood in terms of their freedom. How I as a
person acknowledge engage with and face up to this freedom will explain the person that I am. Just
how I will engage with this freedom is explained by Sartre in terms of the original choice. The original
choice is a choice about what kind of person I will be, of what attitude I will adopt to the world, of what
kind of stance I will take toward situations, other people and even myself, what projects I will pursue,
what values and motives I will have. In other words, my whole world view will be encapsulated in this
initial choice. An important point that Sartre makes is that while all my decisions are to be understood
in terms of this fundamental option, the fundamental choice itself is made without any basis, any
determination, any justification since any such support or justification is only valid, only available
within a world view that one chooses. In other words such a fundamental choice is an absurdchoice,
there is no reason to it.
Why does Sartre think that an original choice is important? Well as I said for Sartre a person is
understood in terms of her freedom, but Sartre also thinks that a person is responsible for everything
she chooses, for everything that happens to her. At first sounding this sounds just crazy. Is the
person being tortured responsible for the pain he is in? Is the disabled person responsible for being
without legs? We usually think that people are not responsible for such situations, but Sartre thinks
that they are responsible. And they are responsible in virtue of their initial choice. Here is what Sartre
says: "Even this disability from which I suffer I have assumed by the very fact that I live; I surpass it
toward my own projects, I make of it the necessary obstacle for my being and I cannot be crippled
without choosing myself as crippled. This means that I choose the way I constitute my disability (as
'unbearable', 'humiliating, 'to be hidden', 'to be revealed to all')."
The point of this should be clear: the disability is itself nothing. It's significance is only apparent
depending on what attitude I take to it, is it an obstacle in my way or an opportunity? This example
should highlight the important consequences of the fundamental choice in our lives, but it is difficult to
make sense of the fundamental choice itself. When exactly does it occur? don't we grow into
attitudes, given our experiences and up bringing rather than consciously choose them? Do 'I' exist
before a choice is made? The initial choice is supposed to influence what type of person I will be so
then how do I exist before I have chosen what to be? It seems I would exist as some purely
intellectual being, but this is entirely at odds with Sartre's account of a person being engaged with the
world. Perhaps the most influential criticism of Sartre comes from his friend Merleau-Ponty.
Merleau-Ponty argues that any choice presupposes an understanding of what is involved in the
choice. In the recent General election in the UK, if I had decided to vote Labour or Conservative I
must have had knowledge of what policies the parties stand for, what the differences between them
are etc. In making an initial choice I must understand what options are open to me, what opportunities
the world presents, my historic situation act. If this is right then there can be no initial choice in
Sartre's sense, because for Sartre this is supposed to create understanding to bring it about that
there is a world for me.
Nevertheless, the point that we can recognise that we have some control over our approach to life in
the face of the seeming arbitrariness of the world can still strike us as a powerful idea, even if Sartre
took this to an untenable length.
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield