Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD062-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

Sartre was a philosopher of paradox: an existentialist who attempted a reconciliation with Marxism, a theorist of freedom who explored the notion of predestination. From the mid-1930s to the late-1940s, Sartre was in his ‘classical’ period. He explored the history of theories of imagination leading up to that of Husserl, and developed his own phenomenological account of imagination as the key to the freedom of consciousness. He analysed human emotions, arguing that emotion is a freely chosen mode of relationship to the outside world. In his major philosophical work, L’Être et le Néant(Being and Nothingness) (1943a), Sartre distinguished between consciousness and all other beings: consciousness is always at least tacitly conscious of itself, hence it is essentially ‘for itself’ (pour-soi) – free, mobile and spontaneous. Everything else, lacking this self-consciousness, is just what it is ‘in-itself’ (en-soi); it is ‘solid’ and lacks freedom. Consciousness is always engaged in the world of which it is conscious, and in relationships with other consciousnesses. These relationships are conflictual: they involve a battle to maintain the position of subject and to make the other into an object. This battle is inescapable.

Although Sartre was indeed a philosopher of freedom, his conception of freedom is often misunderstood. Already in Being and Nothingness human freedom operates against a background of facticity and situation. My facticity is all the facts about myself which cannot be changed – my age, sex, class of origin, race and so on; my situation may be modified, but it still constitutes the starting point for change and roots consciousness firmly in the world. Freedom is not idealized by Sartre; it is always within a given set of circumstances, after a particular past, and against the expectations of both myself and others that I make my free choices. My personal history conditions the range of my options.

From the 1950s onwards Sartre became increasingly politicized and was drawn to attempt a reconciliation between existentialism and Marxism. This was the aim of the Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason) (1960) which recognized more fully than before the effect of historical and material conditions on individual and collective choice. An attempt to explore this interplay in action underlies both his biography of Flaubert and his own autobiography.

    Citing this article:
    Howells, Christina. Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD062-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

    Related Articles