Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80)

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

5. Later philosophy

The increasing politicization of Sartre’s postwar writing meant that he left both literature and philosophy to one side in the 1950s as he became increasingly engaged as a writer, lecturer and public figure in concrete political issues and endeavours. His next major philosophical work, the Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason), did not appear until 1960 and is clearly marked by his increasing intellectual engagement with Marx. The Critique is an attempt to do the impossible: to reconcile existentialism and Marxism; to revivify Marxism, which Sartre believed was becoming sclerotic, by reawakening its awareness of individual and collective subjectivity; and to bring existentialism into closer contact with the material conditions of historical existence. Sartre examines social and political issues such as group action, historical change, revolution and behaviour in the face of material scarcity of resources. He modifies his radical position on the extent of human freedom by recognizing more fully than before the effect of historical and material conditions on individual and collective choice. He takes as his own the famous slogan of Engels: ‘Men make history on the basis of what history has made them.’ We are not pawns or cogs in a machine, nor do we simply participate in processes of internalization and externalization: we are free agents, but agents who are profoundly and inescapably situated in specific social and material conditions. Indeed Sartre later uses the (Jansenist) term ‘predestination’ to explain how his views differ from positivist theories of human determinism. Material conditions set up the environment in which we operate. They do not causally determine our behaviour, but they do prescribe the (limited) range of options open to us. A white bourgeois male in a prosperous suburb has a vastly wider range of choices on which to exercise his freedom than an elderly black women living in the poverty of an inner city ghetto. Both are free in the ontological sense, but their possibilities for making use of that freedom are not comparable. And in 1960 Sartre is as concerned with the restrictions imposed on freedom by the material world as with human liberty itself.

It is this preoccupation with the absolute and yet circumscribed nature of human freedom that underpins Sartre’s two last major works: his autobiography, Les Mots(Words) (1963), a brief and finely wrought literary masterpiece, and L’Idiot de la famille (The Idiot of the Family) (1971–2), a 3,000-page biography of Flaubert which draws on a vast range of different disciplines. ‘What can one know of a man, today?’ was the question Sartre set out to answer in his account of Flaubert, and in it he synthesizes not only existentialism, phenomenology and Marxist theory and method, but also psychoanalysis, sociology, history of literature, aesthetics and anthropology. What did Flaubert make of what was made of him? Educated in a family embodying the historical conflicts of its age, second son of a doctor and expected to become a lawyer, the young Gustave Flaubert constructed a very different career for himself. Resistant to adult pressures to perform, he learned to read late (hence the Idiot of the title), lived in his elder brother’s shadow and opted out of law school through a hysterico-epileptic crisis (‘intentional’ but not ‘deliberate’, in Sartre’s terms) which made him an invalid – the ‘hermit of Croisset’ – and thus permitted him to live in the family home and become a writer. Sartre’s account of his own choice of the same career is more succinct and more ironic: the Sartre and Schweitzer (maternal grandfather) families are not spared in the biting and witty descriptions of the ‘family comedy’ which made of young Jean-Paul a precocious charlatan, writing to please adults, writing for future fame – a superman author – and finally writing as a professional. The gap between choice and destiny is shown to be very small, but it has not closed. Even when analysing with cruel perspicacity his own formation, Sartre maintains the framework he set up thirty years earlier: freedom within situation, even when the situation may leave little room for manoeuvre. Subjectivity is now defined as the décalage or difference between the processes of internalization and externalization; liberty may be no more than the ‘play’ in the mechanism, but the permanent dialectic between the poles of freedom and conditioning remains untotalized.

Citing this article:
Howells, Christina. Later philosophy. 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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