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Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD062-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) is one of the best-known philosophers of the twentieth century. He was also a novelist, literary critic, playwright, essayist, biographer, autobiographer, journalist, and political theorist. Because Sartre’s philosophy was fundamentally about the nature of human existence, it inflects all his writing.

Although Sartre is often described as a major existentialist philosopher, this label should be treated with caution, as the term ‘existentialist’ only came to be associated with Sartre after the publication of his major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness (hereafter BN) in 1943.

Sartre’s early philosophy was highly influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology; his first philosophical publication, The Transcendence of the Ego (hereafter TE), engaged in scholarly detail with Husserl’s commitment to a pure Ego, arguing that even by Husserl’s own lights this was a mistake. Other early philosophical writings by Sartre include an account of the emotions, and two short books about the imagination.

Heidegger was another major influence, to whom Sartre’s conception of nothingness in BN was indebted but with whom, in the same text, Sartre radically disagrees about our relations with others and the significance of death.

The central postulate of BN is human freedom, which Sartre seeks to establish both ontologically and phenomenologically. This freedom, incompatible both with determinism and naturalism, is a source of anguish and it is in order to escape this anguish that people commonly live their lives in an attitude akin to denial or self-deception, which Sartre labels ‘bad faith’.

Sartre’s account of freedom in BN is subtle, and has sometimes been caricatured. It drew criticisms from traditionalists, who saw it as a threat to (Christian) moral orthodoxy; in fact Sartre intended to say more, in a subsequent work, about the ethical dimension of his philosophy but, although he left hundreds of pages of preparatory notes (Sartre, 1992), that promised work was never completed. From the other end of the political spectrum, many socialists attacked BN for its alleged (bourgeois) individualism.

From the 1950s onwards Sartre was increasingly politically engaged; several essays from that period seek to formulate his position in relation to the French Communist Party and the USSR. Correlatively with these activities, Sartre’s later philosophy argues that existentialist philosophy provides a necessary complement to Marxist thought, by supplying a framework within which the individual’s relationship to her historical situation and the class struggle can be adequately theorised. The first volume of Sartre’s ambitious Critique of Dialectical Reason (hereafter CDR) develops a series of original concepts designed to capture the ‘mediations’, or structural relationships, between individuals and their historical world. See also: Western Marxism §2. This project was to be continued in CDR’s second volume, which Sartre did not complete, whose focus was to be the problem of comprehending within a single historical outlook, people’s multiple and opposing individual actions. The Family Idiot, Sartre’s monumental study of Flaubert, applied Sartre’s recently developed methodology to the case of this nineteenth-century French novelist; Sartre’s guiding question was ‘What, at this point in time, can we know about a man?’ Sartre died in 1980, leaving several manuscripts for abandoned or uncompleted projects, many of which have since been posthumously published.

Citing this article:
Richmond, Sarah. Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80), 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD062-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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