Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD062-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 05, 2024, from

1. Background

Sartre’s prestige as a philosopher was at its peak, in France at least, in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the Second World War, when a philosophy of freedom and self-determination fitted the mood of a country recently liberated from the Occupation. It was at its nadir in the late 1960s and 1970s when structuralism had discredited, temporarily, both humanism and existentialism, and proclaimed ‘man’ to be no more than a locus of forces traversed and indeed produced by social and linguistic structures (see Structuralism). The British analytic tradition has never had much time for the literary and dramatic aspects of existentialism and phenomenology, though some recent critics, such as Phyllis Morris (1974) and Gregory McCulloch (1994), have attempted to take Sartre seriously as a philosopher and to assess his contribution in terms more accessible to analytically trained minds.

The emotive responses tend in their different ways to distort Sartre’s arguments and to focus, for example, on one of the poles of the many paradoxes which his philosophy implies. For Sartre is indeed a philosopher of paradox – deliberately facing his readers with logically ‘impossible’ or self-contradictory statements in order to force them to think beyond the confines of the binary oppositions to which common sense and analytic reason have accustomed them. For example, ‘Man is what he is not and is not what he is’ (1943a: 97), provocatively compels the reader who perseveres to confront the difficult issues of the relationship between essence, existence and negation. ‘Man is what he is not’, that is to say, man is a being without an essential nature, a being who operates through negation, who cannot be identified with his past, or indeed his present self, and so ‘who is not what he is’.

1940s Paris overestimated Sartre’s faith in human freedom and lauded him for it; 1960s Paris made the same mistake and discarded him along with all other relics of mid-century humanism. Neither period read Sartre carefully enough to recognize the constraints and limits within which freedom was, from the outset, deemed to operate.

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

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