Sartre, Jean - Paul (1905–1980)
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the key French intellectual figures of the 20th century. Associated primarily with existentialism but also with phenomenology and later with Marxism, Sartre's brilliance is evident not only in his philosophical writings but also in his novels, drama, political essays, literary criticism, biographies, and autobiography. Major literary works include the novel Nausea (La Nausée, 1938) Page 283 | Top of Articleand such plays as Les Mouches (The Flies, 1943) and No Exit (In Camera, 1945). In addition, The Family Idiot (L'Idiot de la famille, 1971–1973)—Sartre's 3,000-page study of Gustave Flaubert—was, in his own words, a “true novel” that drew on psychoanalysis, sociology, philosophy, and literary theory in its attempt to answer the vast epistemological question, What can we know of a man today?
In the 1930s, Sartre's work focused primarily on questions of the nature of the self, the status of the emotions, and the role of imagination in human consciousness. But it is in Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le néant, 1943) that Sartre gives his most extended account of the nature of consciousness as pure negativity that negates not only the world but also itself. It is in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (Critique de la raison dialectique, 1960) that Sartre develops these ideas in their historical perspective, in a work that represents Sartre's most serious and large-scale attempt to come to terms with Marxism. After World War II, he had participated in a short-lived attempt to forge a non-Communist left-wing alliance, the Rassemblement democratique revolutionnaire. During the Cold War in the 1950s, he had drawn closer to Communism, but the rapprochement was eventually halted by Sartre's horror at the Soviet repression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.
The Critique aimed to offer a new perspective on issues such as social conditioning, historical progress, class struggle, the role of the individual in history, scarcity, and revolutionary activity by taking into account the way in which freedom operates within social movements, the way in which human beings interact in group situations, and the complex power struggles that had been analyzed philosophically in Being and Nothingness. Indeed, Sartre's analyses of questions of scarcity, praxis and the “practico-inert,” and colonialism remain highly relevant today and are currently being rediscovered by political philosophers who had previously pigeonholed Sartre within his early phase, which focused primarily on questions of individual freedom.
Sartre is a philosopher of freedom and paradox. His conception of the relationship between liberty and situation, according to which the human being is always and only free within and with respect to his or her situation, allows him to talk of “the necessity of liberty,” to envisage freedom as something to which we are “condemned,” and, in the later years of his life, to maintain that we are simultaneously free and predestined. Admired as a liberator of thought and feared as a moral iconoclast in the 1940s, Sartre came to be recognized as France's major philosopher in the 1950s and early 1960s, only to be eclipsed by the vogue for structuralism and then poststruc-turalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Since his death in 1980, Sartre has once again been taken seriously as a philosopher in Europe and the United States, in particular in the wake of the current revival of interest in questions of ethics and subjectivity.
Aronson, Ronald. Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World. London: New Left Books, 1980.
Flynn, Thomas R. Sartre, Foucault and Historical Reason. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
Howells, Christina, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sartre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Levy, Bernard-Henri. Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century. Trans. Andrew Brown. Cambridge: Polity P, 2003.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Basic Writings. Ed. Stephen Priest. London: Routledge, 2001.