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Jean-Paul Sartre

Related subjects Philosophers

Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964
Jean-Paul Sartre
Birth June 21, 1905 (Paris, France)
Death April 15, 1980 (aged 74) (Paris, France)
School/tradition Existentialism, Marxism
Main interests Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, Phenomenology, Ontology
Notable ideas " Existence precedes essence"
" Bad faith"
" Nothingness"
Influenced by Kant, Hegel, Marx, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Jaspers, De Beauvoir, Camus, Kojève, Flaubert, Céline, Merleau-Ponty
Influenced De Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Frantz Fanon, R.D. Laing, Iris Murdoch, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Alain Badiou, Frederic Jameson, Michael Jackson, Albert Camus, Kenzaburo Oe
Signature Image:Sartre sig.png

Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre ( June 21, 1905 April 15, 1980), normally known simply as Jean-Paul Sartre (pronounced [ʒɑ̃ pol saʁtʁə]), was a French existentialist philosopher and pioneer, dramatist and screenwriter, novelist and critic. He was a leading figure in 20th century French philosophy and has been called "the most written about twentieth-century author."


Early life and thought

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris to Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of the French Navy, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer. His mother was of Alsatian origin, and was a cousin of French Nobel prize laureate Albert Schweitzer. When Sartre was 15 months old, his father died of a fever. Anne-Marie raised him with help from her father, Charles Schweitzer, a high school professor of German, who taught Sartre mathematics and introduced him to classical literature at a very early age. Sartre soon became cross-eyed.

As a teenager in the 1920s, Jean became attracted to philosophy upon reading Henri Bergson's Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. He studied in Paris at the elite École Normale Supérieure, an institution of higher education which was the alma mater for several prominent French thinkers and intellectuals. Sartre was influenced by many aspects of Western philosophy, absorbing ideas from Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Martin Heidegger among others. In 1929 at the École Normale, he met Simone de Beauvoir, who studied at the Sorbonne and later went on to become a noted thinker, writer, and feminist. The two, it is documented, became inseparable and lifelong companions, initiating a romantic relationship, though they were not monogamous. Sartre graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in 1929 with a doctorate in philosophy and served as a conscript in the French Army from 1929 to 1931.

Together, Sartre and M. Welle challenged the cultural and social assumptions and expectations of their upbringings, which they considered bourgeois, in both lifestyle and thought. The conflict between oppressive, spiritually-destructive conformity (mauvaise foi, literally, " bad faith") and an " authentic" state of " being" became the dominant theme of Sartre's early work, a theme embodied in his principal philosophical work L'Être et le Néant ( Being and Nothingness) (1943). Sartre's introduction to his philosophy is his work Existentialism is a Humanism (1946), originally presented as a lecture. In this work, he defends existentialism against its detractors, which ultimately results in a somewhat incomplete description of his ideas. The work has been considered a popular, if over-simplifying, point of entry for those seeking to learn more about Sartre's ideas but lacking the background in philosophy necessary to fully absorb his longer work Being and Nothingness. One should not take the expression of his ideas contained here as authoritative; in 1965, Sartre told Mitchelle Welle that its publication had been "an error".

Sartre and World War II

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. German troops captured him in 1940 in Padoux, and he spent nine months as a prisoner of war — in Nancy and finally in Stalag 12D, Trier, where he wrote his first theatrical piece, Barionà, fils du tonnerre, a drama concerning Christmas. It was during this period of confinement that Sartre read Heidegger's Sein und Zeit later to become a major influence on his own essay on phenomenological ontology. Due to poor health (he claimed that his poor eyesight affected his balance) Sartre was released in April 1941. Given civilian status, he recovered his position as a teacher of Lycée Pasteur near Paris, settled at the Hotel Mistral near Montparnasse at Paris and was given a new position at Lycée Condorcet, replacing a Jewish teacher who had been forbidden to teach by Vichy law.

After coming back to Paris in May 1941, he participated in the founding of the underground group Socialisme et Liberté with other writers Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Toussaint, Dominique Desanti, Jean Kanapa, and École Normale students. In August, Sartre and Beauvoir went to the French Riviera seeking the support of André Gide and André Malraux. However, both Gide and Malraux were undecided, and this may have been the cause of Sartre's disappointment and discouragement. Socialisme et liberté soon dissolved and Sartre decided to write instead of being involved in active resistance. He then wrote Being and Nothingness, The Flies and No Exit, none of which was censored by the Germans, and also contributed to both legal and illegal literary magazines.

After August 1944 and the liberation of Paris, he was a very active contributor of Combat, a newspaper created during the clandestine period by Albert Camus, a philosopher and author who held similar beliefs. Sartre and Beauvoir remained friends with Camus until he turned away from communism, a schism that eventually divided them in 1951, after the publication of Camus' The Rebel. Later, while Sartre was labelled by some authors as a resistant, the French philosopher and resistant Vladimir Jankelevitch criticized Sartre's lack of political commitment during the German occupation, and interpreted his further struggles for liberty as an attempt to redeem himself. According to Camus, Sartre was a writer who resisted, not a resistor who wrote.

When the war ended Sartre established Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times), a monthly literary and political review, and started writing full-time as well as continuing his political activism. He would draw on his war experiences for his great trilogy of novels, Les Chemins de la Liberté ( The Roads to Freedom) (1945–1949). Sartre was the head of the Organization to Defend Iranian Political Prisoners from 1964 till the victory of the Islamic Revolution.

Sartre and Communism

The first period of Sartre's career, defined in large part by Being and Nothingness (1943), gave way to a second period as a politically engaged activist and intellectual. His 1948 work Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands) in particular explored the problem of being both an intellectual at the same time as becoming "engaged" politically. He embraced communism, though never officially joining the Communist party, and took a prominent role in the struggle against French rule in Algeria. He became perhaps the most eminent supporter of the FLN in the Algerian War and was one of the signatory of the Manifeste des 121. Furthermore, he had an Algerian mistress, Arlette Elkaïm, who became his adopted daughter in 1965. He opposed the Vietnam War and, along with Bertrand Russell and others, organized a tribunal intended to expose alleged U.S. war crimes, which became known as the Russell Tribunal in 1967. Its impact was limited.

As a fellow-traveller, Sartre spent much of the rest of his life attempting to reconcile his existentialist ideas about free will with communist principles, which taught that socio-economic forces beyond our immediate, individual control play a critical role in shaping our lives. His major defining work of this period, the Critique de la raison dialectique ( Critique of Dialectical Reason) appeared in 1960. Sartre's emphasis on the humanist values in the early works of Marx led to a dispute with the leading Communist intellectual in France in the 1960s, Louis Althusser, who claimed that the ideas of the young Marx were decisively superseded by the "scientific" system of the later Marx. Sartre went to Cuba in the '60s to meet Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. After Guevara's death he said that Guevara was the most complete human being of his age. This is actually noted in the trailers for the film The Motorcycle Diaries which documents Guevara's travels around South America as a young man.

Late life and death

In 1964, Sartre renounced literature in a witty and sardonic account of the first ten years of his life, Les mots (Words). The book is an ironic counterblast to Marcel Proust, whose reputation had unexpectedly eclipsed that of André Gide (who had provided the model of littérature engagée for Sartre's generation). Literature, Sartre concluded, functioned as a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. In the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he declined it, stating that "It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner. A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form." He was the second person to ever decline a Nobel Prize. ( Boris Pasternak and Le Duc Tho declined in 1958 and 1973 respectively.) Though his name was now a household word (as was "existentialism" during the tumultuous 1960s), Sartre remained a simple man with few possessions, actively committed to causes until the end of his life, such as the student revolution strikes in Paris during the summer of 1968 during which he was arrested for civil disobedience. General De Gaulle intervened and pardoned him, commenting that "you don't arrest Voltaire".

In 1975, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Sartre replied: "I would like [people] to remember Nausea, [my plays] No Exit and The Devil and the Good Lord, and then my two philosophical works, more particularly the second one, Critique of Dialectical Reason. Then my essay on Genet, Saint Genet…If these are remembered, that would be quite an achievement, and I don't ask for more. As a man, if a certain Jean-Paul Sartre is remembered, I would like people to remember the milieu or historical situation in which I lived,...how I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations which I tried to gather up within myself." Sartre's physical condition deteriorated, partially due to the merciless pace of work (and using drugs for this reason, e.g., amphetamine) he put himself through during the writing of the Critique and the last project of his life, a massive analytical biography of Gustave Flaubert (The Family Idiot), both of which remained unfinished. He died April 15, 1980 in Paris from an oedema of the lung.

Sartre's grave in the Cimetière de Montparnasse
Sartre's grave in the Cimetière de Montparnasse

Sartre's atheism was foundational for his style of existentialist philosophy. In March 1980, about a month before his death, he was interviewed by his assistant, Benny Lévy, and within these interviews he expressed his interest in Judaism which was inspired by Levy's renewed interest in the faith. Through Sartre's study of Jewish history he became particularly interested in the messianic idea of the faith. Some people apparently took this to indicate a deathbed conversion; however, the text of the interviews makes it clear that he did not consider himself a Jew, and was interested in the ethical and "metaphysical character" of the Jewish religion, while continuing to reject the idea of an existing God. In a separate 1974 interview with Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre said that "I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God." But immediately adds that "this is not a clear, exact idea…"

Sartre lies buried in Cimetière de Montparnasse in Paris. His funeral was attended by 50,000 mourners.


The basis of Sartre's existentialism is found in The Transcendence of the Ego. To begin with, the thing-in-itself is infinite and overflowing. Sartre refers to any direct consciousness of the thing-in-itself as a "pre-reflective consciousness." Any attempt to describe, understand, historicize etc. the thing-in-itself, Sartre calls "reflective consciousness." There is no way for the reflective consciousness to subsume the pre-reflective, and so reflection is fated to a form of anxiety, i.e. the human condition. The reflective consciousness in all its forms, (scientific, artistic or otherwise) can only limit the thing-in-itself by virtue of its attempt to understand or describe it. It follows, therefore, that any attempt at self-knowledge (self-consciousness - a reflective consciousness of an overflowing infinite) is a construct that fails no matter how often it is attempted. Consciousness is consciousness of itself insofar as it is consciousness of a transcendent object.

The same holds true about knowledge of the " Other." The "Other" (meaning simply beings or objects that are not the self) is a construct of reflective consciousness. One must be careful to understand this more as a form of warning than as an ontological statement. However, there is an implication of solipsism here that Sartre considers fundamental to any coherent description of the human condition. Sartre overcomes this solipsism by a kind of ritual. Self consciousness needs "the Other" to prove (display) its own existence. It has a "masochistic desire" to be limited, i.e. limited by the reflective consciousness of another subject. This is expressed metaphorically in the famous line of dialogue from No Exit, "Hell is other people."

La Nausée and existentialism

As a junior lecturer at the Lycée du Havre in 1938, Sartre wrote the novel La Nausée (Nausea) which serves in some ways as a manifesto of existentialism and remains one of his most famous books. Taking a page from the German phenomenological movement, he believed that our ideas are the product of experiences of real-life situations, and that novels and plays describing such fundamental experiences have as much value as do discursive essays for the elaboration of philosophical theories. With this mandate, the novel concerns a dejected researcher (Roquentin) in a town similar to Le Havre who becomes starkly conscious of the fact that inanimate objects and situations remain absolutely indifferent to his existence. As such, they show themselves to be resistant to whatever significance human consciousness might perceive in them.

This indifference of "things in themselves" (closely linked with the later notion of "being-in-itself" in his Being and Nothingness) has the effect of highlighting all the more the freedom Roquentin has to perceive and act in the world; everywhere he looks, he finds situations imbued with meanings which bear the stamp of his existence. Hence the "nausea" referred to in the title of the book; all that he encounters in his everyday life is suffused with a pervasive, even horrible, taste — specifically, his freedom. The book takes the term from Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it is used in the context of the often nauseating quality of existence. No matter how much Roquentin longs for something else or something different, he cannot get away from this harrowing evidence of his engagement with the world. The novel also acts as a terrifying realization of some of Kant's fundamental ideas; Sartre uses the idea of the autonomy of the will (that morality is derived from our ability to choose in reality; the ability to choose being derived from human freedom; embodied in the famous saying "Condemned to be free") as a way to show the world's indifference to the individual. The freedom that Kant exposed is here a strong burden, for the freedom to act towards objects is ultimately useless, and the practical application of Kant's ideas prove to be bitterly rejected.

The stories in Le Mur ( The Wall) emphasize the arbitrary aspects of the situations people find themselves in and the absurdity of their attempts to deal rationally with them. A whole school of absurd literature subsequently developed.

It has also been suggested that his existential thought and "Nausea" in particular were strongly influenced by a poorly managed mescaline trip in February of 1935 (Reidlinger, 1982). The experience by his own description had many of the characteristics of a Basic Perinatal Matrice II (Grof, 1980), the most defining feature of which is a "no exit" existential hell. See COEX systems, Stanislav Grof.

Reidlinger, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1982, Vol. 14, No.2. Grof, LSD Psychotherapy, 1980.

Sartre and literature

During the 1940s and 1950s Sartre's ideas remained ambiguous, and existentialism became a favoured philosophy of the beatnik generation. Sartre's views were counterposed to those of Albert Camus in the popular imagination. In 1948, the Roman Catholic Church placed his complete works on the Index of prohibited books. Most of his plays are richly symbolic and serve as a means of conveying his philosophy. The best-known, Huis-clos ( No Exit), contains the famous line "L'enfer, c'est les autres", usually translated as "Hell is other people".

Aside from the impact of Nausea, Sartre's major contribution to literature was the The Roads to Freedom trilogy which charts the progression of how World War II affected Sartre's ideas. In this way, Roads to Freedom presents a less theoretical and more practical approach to existentialism.

Sartre and terrorism

Following the Munich massacre in which eleven Israeli Olympians were killed by the Palestinian organization Black September in Munich 1972, Sartre said terrorism "is a terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others." Sartre also found it "perfectly scandalous that the Munich attack should be judged by the French press and a section of public opinion as an intolerable scandal."

Sartre as a public intellectual

The neglect of Sartre’s public role is not surprising given the subject of his literary and philosophical texts.

His relationship with the media is not only fraught from his individual perspective but is indicative of the societal issue of the intellectual as a subject of knowledge and the concrete subject of an intellectual and their role. What Sartre encapsulates is the ‘complex and paradoxical role of the intellectual in post-industrial western societies, and symbolic of the voice of political and cultural dissidence struggling for the freedom of expression in an environment increasingly subject to rapid technological change’ (Scriven 1993: 1).

Whilst the broad focus of his life revolved around the notion of human freedom, a sustained intellectual participation in more public matters began in 1945. Prior to this,before the Second World War, he was content with the role of apolitical liberal intellectual, ‘Now teaching at the a lycee in Laon […] Sartre made his headquarters the Dome café at the crossing of Montparnasse and Raspail boulevards. He attended plays, read novels, and dined [with] women. He wrote. And he was published’ (Gerassi 1989: 134). He and his lifelong companion, Simone de Beauvoir, existed in her words where ‘the world about us was a mere backdrop against which our private lives were played out (de Beauvoir 1958: 339)

Sartre portrayed his own pre-war situation in the character Mathieu, chief protagonist in the The Age of Reason (completed during Sartre’s first year as a soldier in the Second World War), the first episode of the Road to Freedom trilogy. By forging Mathieu as an absolute rationalist, analysing the minutae of every situation, and functioning entirely on reason, he removed any strands of authentic content from his character and as a result, Mathieu could “recognize no allegiance except to myself” (Sarte 1942: 13), though he realized that without “responsibility for my own existence, it would seem utterly absurd to go on existing” (Sartre 1942: 14). Mathieu’s commitment was only to himself, never to the outside. Restraining him from action each time was that he had no reasons for acting thus. Sartre then, for these reasons, was not compelled to participate in the Spanish Civil War, and it took the invasion of his own country to motivate him into action and the war itself to provide a crystallization of these ideas he had so eloquently written about. It was the war that gave him a purpose beyond himself, and the atrocities of the war can be seen as the turning point in his public stance.

The war was to be the most formative experience of Sartre’s life – it opened his eyes to a political reality he had not yet understood until forced into this continual engagement with it: ‘the world itself destroyed Sartre’s illusions about isolated self-determining individuals and made clear his own personal stake in the events of the time’ (Aronson 1980: 108). Returning to Paris therefore in 1941 he formed the ‘Socialisme et Liberte’ resistance group and later, in 1943, after a lack of Communist support forced the disbandment of the first, he joined a writers Resistance group, in which he remained an active participent until the end of the war. He continued to write ferociously also, and it was due to this ‘crucial experience of war and captivity that Sartre began to try to build up a positive moral system and to express it through literature’ (Thody 1964: 21)

The symbolic initiation of this new phase in Sartre’s work is packaged in the introduction he wrote for a new journal, Les Temps Modernes, in October 1945. Here he aligned the journal and thus himself, with the Left and called for writers to express their political commitment (Aronson 1980: 107) and yet this alignment was indefinite – directed more to the concept of the Left than a specific party of the Left.

Sartre’s philosophy lent itself aptly to his being a public intellectual. He envisaged culture as a very fluid concept – neither pre-determined, nor definitely finished – instead, in true existensial fashion, ‘culture was always conceived as a process of continual invention and re-invention’. This marks Sartre, the intellectual, as a pragmatist, willing to move and shift stance along with events. He did not dogmatically follow a cause – other than the belief in human freedom - preferring to retain a pacifist's objectivity. It is this over-arching theme of freedom that means his work ‘subverts the bases for distinctions among the disciplines’ (Kirsner 2003: 13) and therefore, in the fashion of a public intellectual, he was able to hold knowledge across a vast array of subjects: ‘the international world order, the political and economic organisation of contemporary society, especially France, the institutional and legal frameworks that regulate the lives of ordinary citizens, the educational system, the media networks that control and disseminate information. Sartre systematically refused to keep quiet about what he saw as inequalities and injustices in the world’ (Scriven 1999: xii). Most often too, his views were divergent from the prevailing political situation. The most clear example of this is in his post-war attitude to the French Communist Party (PCF), who, following Liberation were infuriated by Sartre's philosophy and opposition, which appeared to lure young French men and women away from the ideology of Marxism into Sartre’s own existensial nihilism (Scriven 1999: 13). Here we see Sartre telling his own truths to power, a fundamental role of the public intellectual. His troubled and varied relationship with Communism and Marxism in particular was a consequence of their doctrines that would have prevented his freedom of expression – indeed, to align himself too rigidly with any political movement, would have circumscribed the very freedom he was searching for through, initially his writings and, especially after the Second World War, his public activities, which he had begun to regard as more significant upon recognition of the futility of words in contrast to action (Kirsner 2003: 60)

In the aftermath of a war that had for the first time properly engaged him in political matters, Sartre set about a body of work which ‘reflected on virtually every important theme of his early thought and began to explore alternative solutions to the problems posed there’ (Aronson 1980: 121). The greatest difficulties that he and all public intellectuals of the time faced were the increasing technological aspects of world that were outdating the printed word as a form of expression. So, although in Sartre’s opinion, ‘traditional bourgeois literary forms remain innately superior’ there is ‘a recognition that the new technological "mass media" forms must be embraced if Sartre’s ethical and political achievements as an authentic, committed intellectual are to be achieved: the demystification of bourgeois political practices and the raising of the consciousness, both political and cultural, of the working class” (Scriven 1993: 8). The struggle for Sartre was against the monopolising moguls who were beginning to take-over the media and defunct the role of the intellectual. His attempts therefore to reach a public were mediated by these powers, and it was often these powers he had to campaign against. He was skilled enough however, to circumvent some of these issues by his interactive approach to the various forms of media – advertising his radio interviews in a newspaper column for example, and vice versa (Scriven 1993: 22).

The role of a public intellectual often leads to the individual placing themselves in danger as they engage with heatedly disputed topics. In Sartre’s case this was witnessed in June 1961 especially, when a plastic bomb exploded in the entrance of his apartment building. His public support of Algerian self-determination at the time, had led Sartre to become a target of the right-wing campaign of terror that mounted as the colonists’ position deteriorated. A similar occurrence took place the next year and he had begun to receive threatening letters from Oran (Aronson 1980: 157)

Sartre clearly held himself and his kind in a high regard, pronouncing the intellectual to be the moral conscience of their age, their task being to observe the political and social situation of the moment and to speak out, freely, in accordance with their conscience (Scriven 1993: 119)

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