Jean Paul Sartre Existentialism Essay Summary Of Plato

1. Philosophical Development

Sartre was born in Paris where he spent most of his life. After a traditional philosophical education in prestigious Parisian schools that introduced him to the history of Western philosophy with a bias toward Cartesianism and neoKantianism, not to mention a strong strain of Bergsonism, Sartre succeeded his former school friend, Raymond Aron, at the French Institute in Berlin (1933–1934) where he read the leading phenomenologists of the day, Husserl, Heidegger and Scheler. He prized Husserl's restatement of the principle of intentionality (all consciousness aims at or “intends” an other-than-consciousness) that seemed to free the thinker from the inside/outside epistemology inherited from Descartes while retaining the immediacy and certainty that Cartesians prized so highly. What he read of Heidegger at that time is unclear, but he deals with the influential German ontologist explicitly after his return and especially in his masterwork, Being and Nothingness (1943). He exploits the latter's version of Husserlian intentionality by insisting that human reality (Heidegger's Dasein or human way of being) is “in the world” primarily via its practical concerns and not its epistemic relationships. This lends both Heidegger's and Sartre's early philosophies a kind of “pragmatist” character that Sartre, at least, will never abandon. It has been remarked that many of the Heideggerian concepts in Sartre's existentialist writings also occur in those of Bergson, whose “Les Données immediates de la conscience” (Time and Free Will) Sartre once credited with drawing him toward philosophy. But it is clear that Sartre devoted much of his early philosophical attention to combating the then influential Bergsonism and that mention of Bergson's name decreases as that of Heidegger grows in Sartre's writings during the “vintage” existentialist years. Sartre seems to have read the phenomenological ethicist Max Scheler, whose concept of the intuitive grasp of paradigm cases is echoed in Sartre's reference to the “image” of the kind of person one should be that both guides and is fashioned by our moral choices. But where Scheler in the best Husserlian fashion argues for the “discovery” of such value images, Sartre insists on their creation. The properly “existentialist” version of phenomenology is already in play.

Though Sartre was not a serious reader of Hegel or Marx until during and after the war, like so many of his generation, he came under the influence of Kojève's Marxist and protoexistentialist interpretation of Hegel, though he never attended his famous lectures in the 1930s as did Lacan and Merleau-Ponty. It was Jean Hyppolite's translation of and commentary on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit that marked Sartre's closer study of the seminal German philosopher. This is especially evident in his posthumously published Notebooks for an Ethics written in 1947–48 to fulfill the promise of an “ethics of authenticity” made in Being and Nothingness. That project was subsequently abandoned but the Hegelian and Marxist presence became dominant in Sartre's next major philosophical text, the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) and in an essay that came to serve as its Introduction, Search for a Method (1957). Dilthey had dreamt of completing Kant's famous triad with a fourth Kritik, namely, a critique of historical reason. Sartre pursued this project by combining a Hegelian-Marxist dialectic with an Existentialist “psychoanalysis” that incorporates individual responsibility into class relationships, thereby adding a properly Existentialist dimension of moral responsibility to a Marxist emphasis on collective and structural causality—what Raymond Aron would later criticize as an impossible union of Kierkegaard and Marx. In the final analysis, Kierkegaard wins out; Sartre's “Marxism” remains adjectival to his existentialism and not the reverse. This becomes apparent in the last phase of his work.

Sartre had long been fascinated with the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. In what some would consider the culmination of his thought, he weds Existentialist biography with Marxian social critique in a Hegelian “totalization” of an individual and his era, to produce the last of his many incompleted projects, a multi-volume study of Flaubert's life and times, The Family Idiot (1971–1972). In this work, Sartre joins his Existentialist vocabulary of the 1940s and early 1950s with his Marxian lexicon of the late 1950s and 1960s to ask what we can know about a man in the present state of our knowledge. This study, which he describes as “a novel that is true,” incarnates that mixture of phenomenological description, psychological insight, and social critique that has become the hallmark of Sartrean philosophy. These features doubtless contributed to his being awarded the Nobel prize for literature, which he characteristically refused along with its substantial cash grant lest his acceptance be read as approval of the bourgeois values that the honor seemed to emblemize.

In his last years, Sartre, who had lost the use of one eye in childhood, became almost totally blind. Yet he continued to work with the help of a tape recorder, producing with Benny Lévy portions of a “co-authored” ethics, the published parts of which indicate, in the eyes of many, that its value may be more biographical than philosophical.

After his death, thousands spontaneously joined his funeral cortège in a memorable tribute to his respect and esteem among the public at large. As the headline of one Parisian newspaper lamented: “France has lost its conscience.”

2. Ontology

Like Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre distinguished ontology from metaphysics and favored the former. In his case, ontology is primarily descriptive and classificatory, whereas metaphysics purports to be causally explanatory, offering accounts about the ultimate origins and ends of individuals and of the universe as a whole. Unlike Heidegger, however, Sartre does not try to combat metaphysics as a deleterious undertaking. He simply notes in a Kantian manner that it raises questions we cannot answer. On the other hand, he subtitles Being and Nothingness a “Phenomenological Ontology.” Its descriptive method moves from the most abstract to the highly concrete. It begins by analyzing two distinct and irreducible categories or kinds of being: the in-itself (en-soi) and the for-itself (pour-soi), roughly the nonconscious and consciousness respectively, adding a third, the for-others (pour-autrui), later in the book. He concludes with a sketch of the practice of “existential psychoanalysis” that interprets our actions to uncover the fundamental project that unifies our lives.

Being-in-itself and being-for-itself have mutually exclusive characteristics and yet we (human reality) are entities that combine both, which is the ontological root of our ambiguity. The in-itself is solid, self-identical, passive and inert. It simply “is.” The for-itself is fluid, nonself-identical, and dynamic. It is the internal negation or “nihilation” of the in-itself, on which it depends. Viewed more concretely, this duality is cast as “facticity” and “transcendence.” The “givens” of our situation such as our language, our environment, our previous choices and our very selves in their function as in-itself constitute our facticity. As conscious individuals, we transcend (surpass) this facticity in what constitutes our “situation.” In other words, we are always beings “in situation,” but the precise mixture of transcendence and facticity that forms any situation remains indeterminable, at least while we are engaged in it. Hence Sartre concludes that we are always “more” than our situation and that this is the ontological foundation of our freedom. We are “condemned” to be free, in his hyperbolic phrase.

One can see why Sartre is often described as a Cartesian dualist but this is imprecise. Whatever dualism pervades his thought is one of spontaneity/inertia. His is not a “two substance” ontology like the thinking thing and the extended thing (mind and matter) of Descartes. Only the in-itself is conceivable as substance or “thing.” The for-itself is a no-thing, the internal negation of things. The principle of identity holds only for being-in-itself. The for-itself is an exception to this rule. Accordingly, time with all of its paradoxes is a function of the for-itself's nihilating or “othering” the in-itself. The past is related to the future as in-itself to for-itself and as facticity to possibility, with the present, like “situation” in general, being an ambiguous mixture of both. This is Sartre's version of Heidegger's “Ekstatic temporality,” the qualitative “lived” time of our concerns and practices, the time that rushes by or hangs heavy on our hands, rather than the quantitative “clock” time that we share with physical nature.

The category or ontological principle of the for-others comes into play as soon as the other subject or Other appears on the scene. The Other cannot be deduced from the two previous principles but must be encountered. Sartre's famous analysis of the shame one experiences at being discovered in an embarrassing situation is a phenomenological argument (what Husserl called an “eidetic reduction”) of our awareness of another as subject. It carries the immediacy and the certainty that philosophers demand of our perception of other “minds” without suffering the weakness of arguments from analogy commonly used by empiricists to defend such knowledge.

The roles of consciousness and the in-itself in his earlier work are assumed by “praxis” (human activity in its material context) and the “practico-inert” respectively in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Praxis is dialectical in the Hegelian sense that it surpasses and subsumes its other, the practico-inert. The latter, like the in-itself, is inert but as “practico-” is the sedimentation of previous praxes. Thus speech acts would be examples of praxis but language would be practico-inert; social institutions are practico-inert but the actions they both foster and limit are praxes.

The Other in Being and Nothingness alienates or objectifies us (in this work Sartre seems to use these terms equivalently) and the third party is simply this Other writ large. The “us” is objectified by an Other and hence has the ontological status of being-in-itself but the collective subject or “we,” he insists, is simply a psychological experience. In the Critique another ontological form appears, the “mediating” third, that denotes the group member as such and yields a collective subject without reducing the respective agents to mere ciphers of some collective consciousness. In other words, Sartre accords an ontological primacy to individual praxis while recognizing its enrichment as group member of a praxis that sustains predicates such as command/obedience and right/duty that are properly its own. The concepts of praxis, practico-inert and mediating third form the basis of a social ontology that merits closer attention than the prolix Critique encourages.

3. Psychology

Sartre's gifts of psychological description and analysis are widely recognized. What made him so successful a novelist and playwright contributed to the vivacity and force of his phenomenological “arguments” as well. His early studies of emotive and imaging consciousness in the late 1930s press the Husserlian principle of intentionality farther than their author seemed willing to go. For example, in The Psychology of Imagination (1940), Sartre argues that Husserl remains captive to the idealist principle of immanence (the object of consciousness lies within consciousness), despite his stated goal of combating idealism, when he seems to consider images as miniatures of the perceptual object reproduced or retained in the mind. On the contrary, Sartre argues, if one insists that all consciousness is intentional in nature, one must conclude that even so-called “images” are not objects “in the mind” but are ways of relating to items “in the world” in a properly imaginative manner, namely, by what he calls “derealizing” them or rendering them “present-absent.”

It should be admitted that Sartre never read Husserl's posthumously published lectures on the image that might have corrected his criticism. Though Husserl struggled with the notion of mental image for the first thirty years of his career and distinguished imaging consciousness Bildbewusstsein from the imagination Phantasie, he resisted any account that would employ what Sartre calls “the principle of immanence” and so invite an infinite regress in the vain attempt to reach the transcendent. Still Husserl continued to appeal to mental images in his account of imaging consciousness while eventually avoiding them in analyzing the imagination.

Similarly, our emotions are not “inner states” but are ways of relating to the world; they too are “intentional.” In this case, emotive behavior involves physical changes and what he calls a quasi “magical” attempt to transform the world by changing ourselves. The person who gets “worked up” when failing to hit the golf ball or to open the jar lid, is, on Sartre's reading, “intending” a world where physiological changes “conjure up” solutions in the problematic world. The person who literally “jumps for joy,” to cite another of his examples, is trying by a kind of incantation to possess a good “all at once” that can be realized only across a temporal spread. If emotion is a joke, he warns, it is a joke we believe in. These are all spontaneous, prereflective relations. They are not the products of reflective decision. Yet insofar as they are even prereflectively conscious, we are responsible for them. And this raises the question of freedom, a necessary condition for ascribing responsibility and the heart of his philosophy.

The basis of Sartrean freedom is ontological: we are free because we are not a self (an in-itself) but a presence-to-self (the transcendence or “nihilation” of our self). This implies that we are “other” to our selves, that whatever we are or whatever others may ascribe to us, we are “in the manner of not being it,” that is, in the manner of being able to assume a perspective in its regard. This inner distance reflects not only the nonself-identity of the for-itself and the ekstatic temporality that it generates but forms the site of what Sartre calls “freedom as the definition of man.” To that freedom corresponds a coextensive responsibility. We are responsible for our “world” as the horizon of meaning in which we operate and thus for everything in it insofar as their meaning and value are assigned by virtue of our life-orienting fundamental “choice.” At this point the ontological and the psychological overlap while remaining distinct as occurs so often in phenomenology.

Such fundamental “choice” has been criticized as being criterionless and hence arbitrary. But it would be better to speak of it as criterion-constituting in the sense that it grounds the set of criteria on the basis of which our subsequent choices are made. It resembles what ethicist R. M. Hare calls “decisions of principle” (that establish the principles for subsequent decisions but are themselves unprincipled) and what Kierkegaard would describe as “conversion.” In fact, Sartre sometimes employed this term himself to denote a radical change in one's basic project. It is this original sustaining “choice” that Existential psychoanalysis seeks to uncover.

Sartre's use of intentionality is the backbone of his psychology. And his psychology is the key to his ontology that is being fashioned at this time. In fact, the concept of imaging consciousness as the locus of possibility, negativity and lack emerges as the model for consciousness in general (being-for-itself) in Being and Nothingness. That said, it would not be an exaggeration to describe Sartre as a philosopher of the imaginary, so important a role does imaging consciousness or its equivalent play in his work.

4. Ethics

Sartre was a moralist but scarcely a moralizer. His earliest studies, though phenomenological, underscored the freedom and by implication the responsibility of the practitioner of the phenomenological method. Thus his first major work, Transcendence of the Ego, in addition to constituting an argument against the transcendental ego (the epistemological subject that cannot be an object) central to German idealism and Hussserlian phenomenology, introduces an ethical dimension into what was traditionally an epistemological project by asserting that this appeal to a transcendental ego conceals a conscious flight from freedom. The phenomenological reduction that constitutes the objects of consciousness as pure meanings or significations devoid of the existential claims that render them liable to skeptical doubt-such a reduction or “bracketing of the being question” carries a moral significance as well. The “authentic” subject, as Sartre will later explain in his Notebooks for an Ethics, will learn to live without an ego, whether transcendental or empirical, in the sense that the transcendental ego is superfluous and the empirical ego (of scientific psychology) is an object for consciousness when it reflects on itself in an objectifying act that he calls “accessory reflection.” His works take pains either to ascribe moral responsibility to agents individually or collectively or to set the ontological foundations for such ascriptions.

Authenticity is achieved, Sartre claims, by a conversion that entails abandonment of our original choice to coincide with ourselves consciously (the futile desire to be in-itself-for-itself or God) and thereby free ourselves from identification with our egos as being-in-itself. In our present alienated condition, we are responsible for our egos as we are for any object of consciousness. Earlier he said that it was bad faith (self-deception)to try to coincide with our egos since the fact is that whatever we are we are in the manner of not being it due to the “othering” nature of consciousness. Now his mention of “conversion” to authenticity via a “purifying”(non-objectifying) reflection elaborates that authentic project. He insists that we must allow our spontaneous “selfness” (what he terms ipseity here and in Being and Nothingness) to replace the “Me” or Ego, which he criticizes as an “abusive intermediary” whose future prefigures my future. The shift is from relations of “appropriation” or being where I focus on identifying with my ego in a bad-faith flight from freedom,to relations of “existence” and autonomy where I attend entirely to my project and its goal. The former is egoistic, Sartre now implies, where the latter is outgoing and generous. This resonates with what he will say about the creative artist's work as a gift, an appeal to another freedom and an act of generosity.

It is now common to distinguish three distinct ethical positions in Sartre's writings. The first and best known, existentialist ethics is one of disalienation and authenticity. It assumes that we live in a society of oppression and exploitation. The former is primary and personal, the latter structural and impersonal. While he enters into extended polemics in various essays and journal articles of the late 1940s and ‘50s concerning the systematic exploitation of people in capitalist and colonialist institutions, Sartre always sought a way to bring the responsibility home to individuals who could in principle be named. As Merleau-Ponty observed, Sartre stressed oppression over exploitation, individual moral responsibility over structural causation but without denying the importance of the latter. In fact, as his concept of freedom thickened from the ontological to the social and historical in the mid ‘40s, his appreciation of the influence of factical conditions in the exercise of freedom grew apace.

Sartre's concept of authenticity, occasionally cited as the only existentialist “virtue,” is often criticized as denoting more a style than a content. Admittedly, it does seem compatible with a wide variety of life choices. Its foundation, again, is ontological-the basic ambiguity of human reality that “is what it is not” (that is, its future as possibility) and “is not what it is” (its past as facticity, including its ego or self, to which we have seen it is related via an internal negation). We could say that authenticity is fundamentally living this ontological truth of one's situation, namely, that one is never identical with one's current state but remains responsible for sustaining it. Thus, the claim “that's just the way I am” would constitute a form of self-deception or bad faith as would all forms of determinism, since both instances involve lying to oneself about the ontological fact of one's nonself-coincidence and the flight from concomitant responsibility for “choosing” to remain that way.

Given the fundamental division of the human situation into facticity and transcendence, bad faith or inauthenticity can assume two principal forms: one that denies the freedom or transcendence component (“I can't do anything about it”) and the other that ignores the factical dimension of every situation (“I can do anything by just wishing it”). The former is the more prevalent form of self deception but the latter is common to people who lack a sense of the real in their lives.

Sartre sometimes talks as if any choice could be authentic so long as it is lived with a clear awareness of its contingency and responsibility. But his considered opinion excludes choices that oppress or consciously exploit others. In other words, authenticity is not entirely style; there is a general content and that content is freedom. Thus the “authentic Nazi” is explicitly disqualified as being oxymoronic. Sartre's thesis is that freedom is the implicit object of any choice, a claim he makes but does not adequately defend in his Humanism lecture. He seems to assume that “freedom” is the aspect under which any choice is made, its “formal object,” to revive an ancient term. But a stronger argument than that would be required to disqualify an “authentic” Nazi.

Though critical of its bourgeois variety, Sartre does support an existentialist humanism, the motto of which could well be his remark that “you can always make something out of what you've been made into” (Situations 9:101). In fact, his entire career could be summarized in these words that carry an ethical as well as a critical message. The first part of his professional life focused on the freedom of the existential individual (you can always make something out of…); the second concentrated on the socioeconomic and historical conditions which limited and modified that freedom (what you've been made into), once freedom ceased to be merely the definition of “man” and included the possibility of genuine options in concrete situations. That phase corresponded to Sartre's political commitment and active involvement in public debates, always in search of the exploitative “systems” such as capitalism, colonialism and racism at work in society and the oppressive practices of individuals who sustained them. As he grew more cognizant of the social dimension of individual life, the political and the ethical tended to coalesce. In fact, he explicitly rejected “Machiavellianism.”

If Sartre's first and best known ethics corresponds to the ontology of Being and Nothingness, his second, “dialectical” ethics builds on the philosophy of history developed in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. In a series of posthumously published notes for lectures in the 1960s, some of which were never delivered, Sartre sketched a theory of ethics based on the concepts of human need and the ideal of “integral man” in contrast with its counter-concept, the “subhuman.”What this adds to his published ethics is a more specific content and a keener sense of the social conditions for living a properly human life.

Sartre's third attempt at an ethics, which he called an ethics of the “we,” was undertaken in interview format with his secretary, Benny Lévy, toward the end of his life. It purports to question many of the main propositions of his ethics of authenticity, yet what has appeared in print chiefly elaborates claims already stated in his earlier works. But since the tapes on which these remarks were recorded are unavailable to the public and Sartre's illness at the time they were made was serious, their authority as revisionary of his general philosophy remains doubtful. If ever released in its entirety, this text will constitute a serious hermeneutical challenge.

5. Politics

Sartre was not politically involved in the 1930s though his heart, as he said, “was on the left, like everyone's.” The War years, occupation and resistance made the difference. He emerged committed to social reform and convinced that the writer had the obligation to address the social issues of the day. He founded the influential journal of opinion, Les Temps modernes, with his partner Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron and others. In the “Présentation” to the initial issue (October, 1945), he elaborated his idea of committed literature and insisted that failure to address political issues amounted to supporting the status quo. After a brief unsuccessful attempt to help organize a nonCommunist leftist political organization, he began his long love-hate relationship with the French Communist Party, which he never joined but which for years he considered the legitimate voice of the working class in France. This continued till the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956. Still, Sartre continued to sympathize with the movement, if not the Party, for some time afterwards. He summarized his disillusionment in an essay “The Communists are afraid of Revolution,” following the “events of May,” 1968. By then he had moved toward the radical Left and what the French labeled “les Maos,” whom he likewise never joined but whose mixture of the ethical and the political attracted him.

Politically, Sartre tended toward what the French call “libertarian socialism,” which is a kind of anarchism. Ever distrustful of authority, which he considered “the Other in us,” his ideal was a society of voluntary eye-level relations that he called “the city of ends.” One caught a glimpse of this in his description of the forming group (le groupe en fusion) in the Critique. There each was “the same” as the others in terms of practical concern. Each suspended his or her personal interests for the sake of the common goal. No doubt these practices hardened into institutions and freedom was compromised once more in bureaucratic machinery. But that brief taste of genuine positive reciprocity was revelatory of what an authentic social existence could be.

Sartre came to recognize how the economic conditions the political in the sense that material scarcity, as both Ricardo and Marx insisted, determines our social relations. In Sartre's reading, scarcity emerges as the source of structural and personal violence in human history as we know it. It follows, he believes, that liberation from such violence will come only through the counter violence of revolution and the advent of a “socialism of abundance.”

What Sartre termed the “progressive/regressive method” for historical investigation is a hybrid of historical materialism and existentialist psychoanalysis. It respects the often decisive role of economic considerations in historical explanation (historical materialism) while insisting that “the men that History makes are not the men that make history”; in other words, he resists complete economic determinism by implicit appeal to his humanist motto: “You can always make something out of…”

Never one to avoid a battle, Sartre became embroiled in the Algerian War, generating deep hostility from the Right to the point that a bomb was detonated at the entrance to his apartment building on two occasions by supporters of a French Algeria. Sartre's political critique conveyed in a series of essays, interviews and plays, especially The Condemned of Altona, once more combined a sense of structural exploitation (in this case, the institution of colonialism and its attendant racism) with an expression of moral outrage at the oppression of the Muslim population and the torture of captives by the French military.

Mention of the play reminds us of the role of imaginative art in Sartre's philosophical work. This piece, whose chief protagonist is Frantz “the butcher of Smolensk,” though ostensibly about the effect of Nazi atrocities at the Eastern front on a postwar industrialist family in Hamburg, is really addressing the question of collective guilt and the French suppression of the Algerian war for independence raging at that time. Sartre often turned to literary art to convey or even to work through philosophical thoughts that he had already or would later conceptualize in his essays and theoretical studies. Which brings us to the relation between imaginative literature and philosophy in his work.

6. Art and Philosophy

The strategy of “indirect communication” has been an instrument of “Existentialists” since Kierkegaard adopted the use of pseudonyms in his philosophical writings in the early nineteenth century. The point is to communicate a feeling and an attitude that the reader/spectator adopts in which certain existentialist themes such as anguish, responsibility or bad faith are suggested but not dictated as in a lecture. Asked why his plays were performed only in the bourgeois sections of the city, Sartre replied that no bourgeois could leave a performance of one of them without “thinking thoughts traitorous to his class.” The so-called aesthetic “suspension of disbelief” coupled with the tendency to identify with certain characters and to experience their plight vicariously conveys conviction rather than information. And this is what existentialism is chiefly about: challenging the individual to examine their life for intimations of bad faith and to heighten their sensitivity to oppression and exploitation in their world.

Sartre's early work Nausea (1938) is the very model of a philosophical novel. Its protagonist, Roquentin, works through many of the major themes of Being and Nothingness that will appear five years later. It can be read as an extended meditation on the contingency of our existence and on the psychosomatic experience that captures that phenomenon. In his famous meditation on a tree root, Roquentin experiences the brute facticity of its existence and of his own: both are simply there, without justification, in excess (de trop). The physicality of this revelatory “sickly sweet” sensation should not be overlooked. Like the embarrassment felt before the Other's gaze in the voyeur example cited earlier, our bodily intentionality (what he calls “the body as for-itself”) is revealing an ontological reality.

The case at hand is an artistic way of conveying what Sartre in Being and Nothingness will call “the phenomenon of being.” He agrees with the tradition that “being” or “to be” is not a concept. But if not that, how is it to be indexed? What does it mean “to be”? Sartre's existential phenomenology appeals to certain kinds of experience such as nausea and joy to articulate the “transphenomenal” character of being. Pace Kant, “being” does not denote a realm behind the phenomena that the descriptive method analyzes. Neither is it the object of an “eidetic” reduction (the phenomenological method that would grasp it as an essence). Rather, being accompanies all phenomena as their existential dimension. But this dimension is revealed by certain experiences such as that of the utter contingency which Roquentin felt. This is scarcely rationalism, but neither is it mysticism. Anyone can experience this contingency and, once brought to reflective awareness, can ponder its implications. What this novel does imaginatively, Being and Nothingness, subtitled “A Phenomenological Ontology,” pursues conceptually, though with the aid of phenomenological “arguments,” as we have seen.

In a series of essays published as What is Literature? (1947), Sartre expounds his notion of “committed” literature, a turn in his thought first indicated in the inaugural issue of Les Temps modernes two years earlier. Though steeped in the polemics of the day, this continues to be a seminal text of criticism. It underscores what I have called the “pragmatist” dimension of Sartre's thought: writing is a form of acting in the world; it produces effects for which the author must assume responsibility. Addressing the problem of “writing for our time,” Sartre underscores the harsh facts of oppression and exploitation that were not erased by the upheaval of world war. Ours remains “a society based on violence.” Accordingly, the author is responsible for addressing that violence with a counter-violence (for example, by his choice of topics to discuss) or sharing in it by his silence. Drawing a distinction between prose, which can be committed, and “poetry” (basically nonrepresentational art such as music and poetry properly speaking), which cannot—a distinction that will return to haunt him—Sartre proceeds to urge that the prose-writer reveal that man is a value to be invented each day and that “the questions he raises are always moral” (203). A clear rejection of “art for art's sake,” Sartre insisted on the social responsibility of the artist and the intellectual in general.

The artwork, for Sartre, has always carried a special power: that of communicating among freedoms without alienation or objectification. In this sense, it has stood as an exception to the objectifying gaze of his vintage existentialist texts. That relation between artist and public via the work of art Sartre calls “gift-appeal.” In his The Imaginary, he speaks of the portrait “inviting” the viewer to realize its possibilities by regarding it aesthetically. By the time he gathers these thoughts in What is Literature? and Notebooks for an Ethics, the concept of writing as an act of generosity to which the reader responds by an act of “re-creation” that respects the mutuality of these freedoms—this gift/response model assumes political significance. It is offered as an example of positive reciprocity in the political realm. And, in fact, it anticipates the “free alterity” of the group member as analyzed in the Critique. In other words, Sartre's political and ethical values and concerns conjoin in the concept of committed literature.

Before concluding with a prognosis of Sartre's philosophical relevance in the twenty-first century, let me note the several “biographies” that he produced of important literary figures in addition to his autobiography, Words. Each of these studies constitutes a form of existential psychoanalysis. The subject's literary production is submitted to a kind of “hermeneutic” in which the underlying life-project is uncovered. He begins to employ the progressive-regressive method in the late ‘50s whereby the historical and socioeconomic conditions of the subject are uncovered in a “regressive” argument from biographical and social facts to the conditions of their possibility followed by a “progressive” account of the subjects process of “personalization.” The most extensive, if not the most successful, of these “biographies” is his analysis of the life and times of Gustave Flaubert, The Family Idiot.

But these biographies, almost exclusively about literary men, are also object lessons in an “existentialist” theory of history. Their hallmark is an attempt to reconstruct the subject's project as his manner of dialectically “totalizing” his epoch even as he is being totalized by it. While connecting impersonal historical phenomena in their dialectical necessity (for example, the unintended consequences ingredient in any historical account), these narratives are intent on conveying the subject's sense of the anguish of decision and the pinch of the real. In effect, biography is an essential part of an existentialist approach to history and not a mere illustrative appendage.

7. Sartre in the Twenty-first Century

Foucault once dismissed Sartre testily as a man of the nineteenth century trying to think the twentieth. Presumably, he had more in mind than the fact that most of Sartre's “biographies,” except for Jean Genet's and his own, were of nineteenth-century figures. With his emphasis on consciousness, subjectivity, freedom, responsibility and the self, his commitment to Marxist categories and dialectical thinking, especially in the second part of his career, and his quasi Enlightenment humanism, Sartre seemed to personify everything that structuralists and poststructuralists like Foucault opposed. In effect, the enfant terrible of mid century France had become the “traditionalist”of the following generation. A classic example of philosophical parricide.

In fact, some of this criticism was misdirected while other portions exhibit a genuine philosophical “choice” about goals and methods. Though Sartre resolutely insisted on the primacy of “free organic praxis” methodologically, ontologically, and ethically, on which he based the freedom and responsibility that define his humanism, he respected what his critic Louis Althusser called “structural causality” and made allowance for it with his concept of the practico-inert. But it is the primacy awarded consciousness/praxis in this regard that strikes structuralist and poststructuralist critics as naive and simply wrong. Added to this is Sartre's passion for “totalizing” thought, whether individually in terms of a life project or collectively in terms of dialectical rationality, that counters the fragmenting and anti-teleological claims of poststructuralist authors. And then there is his famous denial of the Freudian unconscious and his relative neglect of semiotics and the philosophy of language in general.

One should note that Sartre's suspicion of Freudian psychoanalysis became quite nuanced in his later years. His appeal to “the lived” (le vécu) and to pre-theoretical comprehension, especially in his Flaubert study, for example, incorporated many features of the “unconscious” drives and relations proper to psychoanalytic discourse. And while he was familiar with Saussure and structural linguistics, to which he occasionally referred, he admitted that he had never formulated an explicit philosophy of language but insisted that one could be reconstructed from elements employed throughout his work.

But at least five features of Sartre's thought seem particularly relevant to current discussions among philosophers both Anglo-American and Continental. The first is his concept of the human agent as not a self but a “presence to self.” This opening up of the Cartesian “thinking thing” supports a wide variety of alternative theories of the self while retaining the features of freedom and responsibility that, one can argue, have been central tenets of Western philosophy and law since the Greeks.

Emphasis on an ethics of responsibility in contrast to one of rules, principles or values in recent years has led to a wide-spread interest in the work of Levinas as a necessary complement to so-called “postmodern” ethics. But Sartrean “authenticity” is equally relevant in this regard, as Charles Taylor and others have pointed out. And its location within a mundane ontology may resonate better with philosophers of a more secular bent.

Next, the recent revival of the understanding of philosophy as a “way of life” as distinct from an academic discipline focused on epistemology or more recently on the philosophy of language, while renewing an interest in Hellenistic ethics as well as in various forms of “spirituality,” can find in Sartrean existentialism forms of “care of the self” that invite fruitful conversation with contemporary ethics, aesthetics and politics without devolving into moralism, aestheticism or fanaticism. From a philosopher suspicious of moral recipes and focused on concrete, lived experience, this is perhaps as much as one could expect or desire.

Sartre dealt implicitly with issue of race in many of his works, beginning with Being and Nothingness. Race relations, especially segregation in the South, figured centrally in his reports from the United States during two visits after the War (1945 and 1946) and were a major topic of his many writings on colonialism and neocolonialism thereafter. It formed the theme of his play, “The Respectful Prostitute” (1946). He claimed that even as a boy, whenever he heard of the French “colonies,” he thought of racial exploitation. He wrote in Black Orpheus about the Africa poets using the colonizers' language against them in their poems of liberation: “Black poetry in French is the only great revolutionary poetry of our time.” He fulminated against the violence of colonialism and its implicit “justification” by appeal to the subhumanity of the native population. On several occasions in diverse works Sartre referred to the cry of the oppressed and exploited: “We too are humans!” as the guiding ideal of their fight for liberty. His existential humanism grounded his critique of the capitalist and colonialist “systems.” He wrote that “the meanness is in the system”—a claim that resonated with liberation movements then and now. But his properly existentialist understanding of that phrase, respecting the ethical primacy of free organic praxis, requires that he qualify the remark with “not entirely”; for whatever system he speaks of rides on the backs of responsible individuals, alone or more likely in social wholes, for whom moral responsibility can and should be ascribed. This may serve as his lesson to the ontology and the ethics of race relations in the twenty-first century. His appeal for violence to counter the inherent violence of the colonial system in Algeria reached hyperbolic proportions in his prefatory essay to Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961).

Of the other topics in current philosophical discussions to which Sartre offers relevant remarks, I would conclude by mentioning feminism. This suggestion will certainly raise some eyebrows because even his fans admit that some of the images and language of his earlier work were clearly sexist in character. And yet, Sartre always favored the exploited and oppressed in any relationship and he encouraged his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, to write The Second Sex, commonly recognized as the seminal work for the second-wave of the feminist movement. In addition to the plausible extrapolations of many remarks made apropos the exploitation of blacks and Arabs, just mentioned, I shall cite two concepts in Sartre's work that I believe carry particular promise for feminist arguments.

The first occurs in the short work Anti-Semite and Jew (1946). Many authors have mined this text for arguments critical of “masculinist” biases, but I wish to underscore the “spirit of synthesis” that Sartre champions there in contrast with the “analytical spirit” that he criticizes. The issue is whether the Jew should be respected legally in his concrete Jewishness—his culture, his practices, including dietary and religious observances—or whether he should be satisfied with the “Rights of Man and of the Citizen” as his analytic, liberal democratic “friend” proposes. The abstract, analytic thinker counsels, in effect, “You enjoy all the rights of a French Citizen, just don't be so Jewish.” Sartre, on the other hand, argues “synthetically” (concretely) for the rights of the Jew or the Arab or the woman (his examples) to vote assuch in any election. In other words, their “rights” are concrete and not mere abstractions. One should not sacrifice the Jew (or the Arab or the woman) to the “man.” In Michael Walzer's words: Sartre is promoting “multiculturalism…avant la lettre.

The second concept that issues from Sartre's later writing which is of immediate relevance to feminist thought is that of positive reciprocity and its attendant notion of generosity. We are familiar with the conflictual nature of interpersonal relations in Sartre's vintage existentialist writings: “Hell is other people” and the like. But in his aesthetic writings and in the Notebooks for an Ethics, he describes the artist's work as a generous act, an invitation from one freedom to another. He even suggests that this might serve as a model for interpersonal relations in general. And in his major work in social ontology, the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre charts the move from objectifying and alienating relationships (series) to the positive reciprocity of the group members. Some feminist authors have employed these Sartrean concepts in their arguments. There remains much still to extract from Sartre's later works in this area.

As Sartrean existentialism frees itself from the limitations of its post-war adolescence and shows its mature psychological, ontological and ethical face to the new century, it enters with adult standing into the ongoing conversation that we call Western philosophy. Its relevance remains as actual today as does the human condition that it describes and analyzes.


For a complete annotated bibliography of Sartre's works see Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka (eds.), The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), updated in Magazine littéraire 103–4 (1975), pp. 9–49, and by Michel Sicard in Obliques, 18–19 (May 1979), pp. 331–47. Michel Rybalka and Michel Contat have complied an additional bibliography of primary and secondary sources published since Sartre's death in Sartre: Bibliography, 1980–1992 (Bowling Green, OH: Philosophy Documentation Center; Paris: CNRS Editions, 1993).

Primary Sources: Works by Sartre

  • 1962, Transcendence of the Ego, tr. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick , New York: Noonday Press, [1936–37].
  • 1948, The Emotions. Outline of a Theory, tr. Bernard Frechtman, New York: Philosophical Library, [1939].
  • 1948, Being and Nothingness, tr. Hazel E. Barnes, New York: Philosophical Library, [1943].
  • 1948, Anti-Semite and Jew, tr. George J. Becker, New York: Schocken. Reprinted with preface by Michael Walzer, 1997 [1946].
  • 1962, “Materialism and Revolution,” in Literary and Philosophical Essays, tr. Annette Michelson, New York: Crowell-Collier, [1946].
  • 1968, The Communists and Peace, with A Reply to Claude Lefort, tr. Martha H. Fletcher and Philip R. Berk respectively, New York: George Braziller, [1952].
  • 1968, Search for a Method, tr. Hazel E. Barnes, New York: Random House, Vintage Books, [1958].
  • 1959, Between Existentialism and Marxism, (essays and interviews, -70), tr. John Mathews, London: New Left Books, 1974.
  • 1976, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1, Theory of Practical Ensembles, tr. Alan Sheridan-Smith, London: New Left Books. Reprinted in 2004, forward by Fredric Jameson. London: Verso. [1960].
  • 1964, The Words, trans. Bernard Frechtman, New York: Braziller, [1964].
  • 1981–93, The Family Idiot, tr. Carol Cosman 5 vols., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1971–72].
  • 1976, Sartre on Theater, ed. Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, New York: Pantheon.
  • 1977, Life/Situations: Essays Witten and Spoken, tr. P. Auster and L. Davis, New York: Pantheon.
  • 1988, What is Literature? And Other Essays, [including Black Orpheus] tr. Bernard Frechtman et al., intro. Steven Ungar, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, [title essay 1947, Les Temps modernes, and 1948, Situations II]
  • 1996, Hope, Now: The 1989 Interviews tr. Adrian van den Hoven, intro. Ronald Aronson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1980].
  • 1992, Notebook for an Ethics, tr. David Pellauer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1983].
  • 1984, The War Diaries, tr. Quentin Hoare,New York: Pantheon, [1983].
  • 1993, Quiet Moments in a War. The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940–1963, ed.. Simone de Beauvoir, tr. and intro. Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, [1983].
  • 1991, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 2, The Intelligibility of History, tr. Quintin Hoare, London: Verso, Reprinted 2006, forward by Frederic Jameson, London: Verso, [1985 unfinished].
  • 1992, Truth and Existence, tr. Adrian van den Hoven, intro. Ronald Aronson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1989].
  • 2001, Colonialism and Neocolonialism, tr. Azzedine Haddout, Steve Brewer and Terry McWilliams, London: Routledge, [1964].
  • 2002, The Imaginary, tr. Jonathan Webber, London: Routledge, [1940].
  • 2007, Existentialism is a Humanism, tr. Carol Macomber, New Haven: Yale, [1946].

Selected Secondary Sources

  • Anderson, Thomas C., 1993, Sartre's Two Ethics: From Authenticity to Integral Humanity, Chicago: Open Court.
  • Aronson, Ronald, 1987, Sartre's Second Critique,Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Barnes, Hazel E., 1981, Sartre and Flaubert, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bell, Linda A., 1989, Sartre's Ethics of Authenticity, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
  • Busch, Thomas, 1990, The Power of Consciousness and the Force of Circumstances in Sartre's Philosophy, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Catalano, Joseph, 1980, A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • –––, 1986, A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1 Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • de Beauvoir, Simone, 1964–1965, The Force of Circumstances, tr. Richard Howard, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
  • –––, 1984, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, tr. P. O'Brian, New York: Pantheon.
  • –––, 1991, Letters to Sartre tr. and ed. Quentin Hoare, New York: Arcade.
  • Detmer, David, 1988, Freedom as a Value: A Critique of the Ethical Theory of Jean-Paul Sartre, La Salle, Ill.: Open Court.
  • Dobson, Andrew, 1993, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Politics of Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fell, Joseph P., 1979, Heidegger and Sartre: An Essay on Being and Place, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Flynn, Thomas R., 1984, Sartre and Marxist Existentialism: The Test Case of Collective Responsibility, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • –––, 1997, Sartre, Foucault and Historical Reason, vol. 1 Toward an Existentialist Theory of History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Gordon, Lewis R., 1995, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities.
  • Howells, Christina ed., 1992, Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jeanson, Francis, 1981, Sartre and the Problem of Morality, tr. Robert Stone, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Judaken, Jonathan, ed., 2008, RACE after Sartre: antiracism, African existentialism, postcolonialism, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • McBride, William Leon, 1991, Sartre's Political Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • –––, ed., 1997, Sartre and Existentialism, 8 vols. New York: Garland.
  • Murphy, Julien S., ed., 1999, Feminist Interpretations of Jean-Paul Sartre, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Santoni, Ronald E., 1995, Bad Faith, Good Faith and Authenticity in Sartre's Early Philosophy, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • –––, 2003, Sartre on Violence: Curiously Ambivalent, University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed., 1981, The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, La Salle, Ill.: Open Court.
  • Schroeder, William, 1984, Sartre and His Predecessors (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Silverman, Hugh J., 1987, Inscriptions: Between Phenomenology and Structuralism, London: Routledge.
  • Stone, Robert and Elizabeth Bowman, 1986, “Dialectical Ethics: A First Look at Sartre's unpublished 1964 Rome Lecture Notes,” Social Text nos. 13–14 (Winter–Spring, 1986), 195–215.
  • –––, 1991, “Sartre's ‘Morality and History’: A First Look at the Notes for the unpublished 1965 Cornell Lectures” in Sartre Alive, ed. Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 53–82.
  • Taylor, Charles, 1991, The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Van den Hoven, Adrian and Leak, Andrew eds, 2005, Sartre Today. A Centenary Celebration, New York: Berghahn Books.
  • Webber, Jonathan ed, 2011, Reading Sartre: On Phenomenology and Existentialism, London: Routledge.

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Jean-Paul Sartre at 100

Why Sartre Matters

Benedict O’Donohoe introduces our Sartre centenary issue.

The 21st June 2005 was an auspicious date – the summer solstice, the tipping point of Gemini into Cancer, and the centenary of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre. And on 15th April 1980 – just 25 years ago – Sartre died. These two dates are worthy of note because, in the intervening 75 years, Sartre created a legacy that is not only memorable but is also, and more importantly, an appeal to an unconventional worldview and, by implication, to action.

Sartre’s attainments as writer and intellectual suffice in themselves to ensure his eminence in the canon of French literature. He is probably the most significant representative of 20th century French letters, whose accomplishments, by their breadth and their depth, their quality and their quantity, surpass those of Gide, Proust or Camus – and he arguably dominates the world stage too. In any case, he is, by various accounts, the most written-about writer of the last century. He also bears comparison with the great names of previous French generations, against whom he measured himself from an early age, surrounded by the leather-bound tomes of his grandfather’s library: whether Descartes or Pascal in the 17th century; Voltaire or Rousseau in the 18th; Balzac, Hugo or Zola in the 19th – Sartre set out to forge a reputation equal to any of these giants, and only the most grudging critics deny that he realised that lofty ambition.

For both the range and the merit of Sartre’s opus are quite amazing: he is the author of modern classics in several fields – the novel, Nausea 1938; the short story, The Wall 1939; the play, No Exit 1944; philosophy, Being and Nothingness 1943; criticism, What is Literature? 1948; biography, Saint Genet, Comedian and Martyr 1952; the polemical essay and reportage – numerous issues of his periodical Les Temps modernes, founded 1946 – and ten volumes of Situations; and, not least, autobiography, Words 1964, widely regarded as his finest literary achievement. As if this body of work were not enough, he also wrote screenplays, journalism, art criticism, theses on theoretical psychology – notably the emotions and the imagination – and copious correspondence. Moreover, he made (admittedly, ill-fated) forays into radio and television. In short, Sartre was, in the phrase he borrowed from Chateaubriand as an epigraph to the final section of Words, ‘a book-making machine’, and the products of his ‘machinery’ had an impact across the spectrum of the arts, media and social sciences.

However, Sartre does not matter simply because he was a great writer, nor even primarily so, although his exceptional command of styles and genres expertly complements his missionary purpose. No, Sartre matters because so many fundamental points of his analysis of the human reality are right and true, and because their accuracy and veracity entail real consequences for our lives as individuals and in social groups. His distinction is to have obeyed his own injunction of ‘commitment’, and to have persisted in trying to convey his messages to as wide an audience as possible, by exploiting every medium available to the writer.

Existentialism is the philosophical label associated most closely with Sartre’s name. It is not a term he coined – that was done by the Catholic philosopher, playwright and critic, Gabriel Marcel – nor one that he particularly liked, but he nevertheless used it and gave it wide currency through a lecture in the immediate post-war period (given at the Club Maintenant, Paris, in October 1945), entitled: ‘Existentialism is a humanism’. Published as a slim volume in 1946, this little book became the sacred text of the fashionable followers of the Left Bank vogue, which is one reason why Sartre regretted its publication. However, it contains a handy definition that underpins the whole of his philosophy, and that is: ‘Existence precedes essence’. This is a crucial principle because it runs counter to the main thrust of western thought from Plato to Hegel, via Judaism, Christianity and Descartes. What it claims is that there is no a priori conception of humankind, whether as species or individual. It therefore disposes at one stroke with the Platonic realm of the ideal, with the Judeo-Christian creator God, and with the Hegelian notion of the Absolute Idea. It is axiomatic for Sartre, as it was for Nietzsche, that we inhabit a godless universe – a common-sense view, given the paucity and poor quality of any evidence for his existence – so that there is no god-given spirit that is distinct from our corporeal selves, and can exist before or after or outside of our earthly lives. Existentialism is therefore also a counterblast to the capital Cartesian notion of the duality of mind and ‘extension’, or matter, summarised in the famous aphorism: Cogito ergo sum. In effect, Sartre inverts this premise to say: Sum ergo cogito, I am therefore I think, which is for Sartre the natural (arbitrary but actual) order of things.

For Sartre, by contrast with Descartes, consciousness is necessarily embodied: it comes into being only with our advent in the world at birth, and goes out of being with our exit from the world in death. In life, however, consciousness itself is nothing, except insofar as it is consciousness of something. Take away all the things of which consciousness is conscious, and you would have nothing left. Whereas, Sartre argues, consciousness can seize itself as conscious of something, it cannot seize itself as conscious exclusively of itself, without being grounded in some material object of which it is conscious. We might well have the impression that the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter is an accurate summary of our condition, but this impression is a delusion. The understanding of ourselves as individuated is an empirical process of learning over time, not an innate awareness.

Sartre’s project in Being and Nothingness was to try to describe the real nature of human existence in a material world of which we are (as bodies) constituent parts, and yet of which we are simultaneously conscious as though we were, in some sense, not a part of it. This insight produces what is perhaps his most profoundly true paradox, that “a human is that being which is not what it is, and is what it is not.” But, of course, he also wants to go beyond mere description by drawing out the ethical implications of his ontological analysis, and this enquiry leads him to the moral concepts of freedom, responsibility, authenticity and bad faith, which he discusses at some length in Being and Nothingness, and promises to return to in a later book of ethics.

Obviously, Sartre wasn’t the first western philosopher to dispose of God, and then find himself wrestling with the consequences. Nietzsche notoriously declared the demise of the deity, then confronted the corollary that humans are the sole source of moral values, which had necessarily to be ‘re-valued, beyond good and evil’. For Sartre, however, it is not so much the absence of God (which he postulates a priori) as the nature of consciousness that makes humans the authors of all moral value. The discriminating power of self-consciousness, enabling us to stand outside ourselves as if we were things in the world much like other things, also enables us to discern that any present situation could be different, and that we could make it so: we can always (ought always, Sartre implies) have a project to amend the status quo. Moreover, in most situations, we can conceive of more than one way to change things: in short, we can – indeed, we have to – choose. What Kierkegaard identified as the inescapable ‘Either/Or’, the source of all anguish, is, for Sartre, the defining characteristic of human being: freedom.

Freedom is not itself a matter of choice, Sartre insists; it is the ineluctable, inherent and foundational quality of human being. We are, as he puts it in one of his pithy formulations, ‘condemned to be free’: every time we act, we are destined to discriminate anew between various possible courses of action in pursuit of our project to modify our situation in the world. Whether we like it or not, we are responsible for the actions we commit, and we are therefore, on the evidence of these, amenable to moral judgment: “You are nothing but the sum of your acts.” Another way of saying that existence precedes essence, is to say that ‘doing precedes being’, or that ‘to be is to act’. Because we are conscious of our moral responsibility, we feel anguish in the face of our freedom, and we are naturally inclined to flee from that anguish.

Sartre says in his early philosophy that we always choose how to act, whatever the circumstances might be. The exhausted athlete chooses the moment at which she is too tired to continue; the terrified victim chooses to faint in order to blot out the insufferable situation. He even goes so far as to say that the tortured man chooses when to cry out in pain – and so on. Despite the extreme quality of some of his examples, it seems to me that Sartre is right to be concerned by the fact that, very commonly, we tend to deny or to disguise our freedom in order to evade responsibility for our actions. This tendency he calls ‘inauthenticity’ or ‘bad faith’. A typical strategy is role-playing, behaving in a way that we feel is dictated or required by the functions we fulfil. He exemplifies this kind of conduct in Being and Nothingness with his caricature of the ‘waiter who is too much a waiter’, a man who escapes the anguish of his freedom by enacting the exaggerated gestures of a cultural stereotype.

Another common evasive strategy, is to claim that one was ‘only following orders’, an excuse advanced in order to exonerate all manner of abominable behaviour, ranging from the Holocaust to the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners. These are well-documented crimes, whose perpetrators defend their actions on the grounds that they were ‘only following orders’. Sartre insists that orders can never cause us to act against our will: they only ever have the force or authority with which the agent himself invests them. The agent always chooses to assent or disobey, to resist or to acquiesce. Several of Sartre’s protagonists in his novels and plays struggle with the dilemma that they chose to obey orders which they felt they ought to disobey, and yet to which they freely and culpably assented. To lie to oneself about the exercise of one’s own freedom and moral discretion is Sartre’s definition of bad faith.

The authentic person, by contrast, agrees that all his actions flow from his inherent freedom, accepts that every action is an implicit assertion of moral value, and realises that our actions are the only basis on which others are entitled to judge us. Action is our dimension-for-the-other in the world, and we have a right of mutual moral scrutiny as if all our actions are committed quite freely. Another entailment of this ethical analysis is that ‘all human life is human’. This tautological maxim, adapted from Nietzsche and Heidegger, is deployed by Sartre to undercut inauthentic interpretations of actions as being, for example, bestial, diabolical, or inhuman. The more apt we become to attribute inhuman or supernatural epithets to our behaviour, the more likely we are to be talking about conduct that is, in fact, exclusively or even characteristically human: no other species could conceive, much less enact, Bergen Belsen or Abu Graib.

So, it flows from Sartre’s first principles that we are embodied consciousnesses, alone in a godless universe, characterised by freedom, destined to act autonomously and by our own lights, and to be wholly responsible for our actions and therefore open to moral judgment on the basis of them. Sartrean existentialism, then, is an ontology that entails an exigent, unrelenting and burdensome deontology, or ethics, whose premises are grounded in empirical good sense, and whose complements derive from it logically and persuasively. Yet there is a problem, which we might call ‘relativity’: the individual’s relation to his situation, or the interface of subjectivity and objectivity, the confrontation of person and history. How does Sartre account for the historical moment, which he calls ‘facticity’ and which is axiomatically contingent? How does facticity impact upon the agent? To what extent is my freedom circumscribed by my conditioning? In Being and Nothingness (1943) he wrote: ‘If war breaks out, it is in my image, it is my war and I deserve it…’ But Frantz, the anti-hero of his play The Condemned of Altona (1960), says: ‘It is not we who make war, but war that makes us.’ To which of these opposing perspectives did Sartre finally adhere?

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Sartre moved away from what he called the analytical and apolitical phase of his thought – enshrined in Being and Nothingness which is subjectivist, individualistic and asocial – towards a dialectical conceptualisation, culminating in Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), which is objectivist, collectivist, and socially focused. This is another distinctive element of Sartre’s legacy: the attempt to reconcile, without renouncing them, the main tenets of his phenomenological ontology and ethics with a more comprehensive and inclusive worldview that would take account of the historical moment in the narrative of the individual; that is, to incorporate the ideology of existentialism into what he called the “unsurpassable philosophy of our time”, Marxism. This evolution can be encapsulated as a shift from the uncompromising analytical dictum, ‘We are what we do’, to the more subtle dialectical statement: ‘We are what we make of what others have made of us’. This is a pragmatic acknowledgment that our freedom, albeit inherent and ineluctable, is necessarily conditioned by time and place. As Sartre once rebuked Camus, in their dispute over the latter’s book The Rebel, “the facts of life are not the same in Passy and in Billancourt” – respectively, affluent middle-class and poor working-class quarters of Paris.

This progressive realisation on Sartre’s part – stemming successively from his war-time experience of relative constraint and impotence, the random intoxication of post-war notoriety, and the relentless struggle to be a critical travelling companion of communism during the 1950s – led not only to a more realistic and humane analysis of the human agent, but also to a political insight articulated in his highly controversial preface to Frantz Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth (1961). This is a ground-breaking analysis of colonial oppression that prompted opponents to denounce Sartre as an apostle of violence, and sympathisers to hail him as ‘the first third-worldist’. Sartre was clearly ahead of his time in declaring that the first world (the erstwhile imperial powers) was rich at the expense of the third world (the erstwhile colonies), and he inaugurated a new discourse which legitimised the counter-violence of national liberation and decolonisation as an authentic response to hegemonic, western European domination.

Here again, it seems clear that Sartre’s analysis is spot-on and his moral intuitions are sound. The depredations perpetrated by the imperialist powers against the peoples they enslaved and the lands they expropriated, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, were nothing less than institutionalised violence on a massive scale, justified broadly speaking on the same grounds as slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries, namely those of inherent racial and moral superiority. And although the colonies have in name been emancipated, they remain in thrall to their former imperialist masters through such control mechanisms as the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the ever-present threat of American military might. This is the potent infrastructure of globalisation, which ensures that the third world remains poor enough to underwrite the wealth of the first. Sartre’s unshakeable commitment to freedom meant that he was always on the side of the oppressed and dispossessed.

With hindsight, Sartre’s deep suspicion of American intentions in the post-war period looks extraordinarily prescient, and well justified in light of the annexation of western Europe through the Marshall Plan, and the Manichean demonisation of the USSR as the ‘Empire of Evil’ over a 40-year time frame, inaugurated by the manic McCarthyite witch-hunts of the early 1950s (which Sartre parodied brilliantly in his satirical farce, Nekrassov, 1955). It is true that his distrust of the USA led him on occasion to be over-optimistic about the Soviet experiment of socialism, and to be slow to acknowledge the delirious extent to which the Stalinist régime relied upon torture, deportation and murder. Nevertheless, Sartre denounced the Gulags in Les Temps modernes as early as 1950, and he remained aloof from the French Communist Party, by whose apparatchiks he was reviled as a ‘demagogue of the third way’ (which New Labour fondly imagines it has invented!), because he obstinately and admirably adhered to his self-styled status as a ‘critical travelling companion’. When Soviet tanks crushed Hungary in 1956, Sartre was cured of any lingering illusions about the Soviet model of socialism, and concentrated his verbal fire all the more fiercely against colonialism and imperialism, a tirade in whose sights was now the empire-building USSR itself.

Certainly, some of Sartre’s later political forays were naïve and wrong-headed, and arguably informed by anachronistic (mis)conceptions of ‘the people, the masses, direct democracy, revolutionary action’, and so on. Yet, whenever he defended the right of the oppressed to meet violence with violence; or that of working people to refuse exploitation by big business; or that of refugees to be saved and given asylum – notably in the case of escapees from South Vietnam after the American debacle, known as the ‘boat people’, whom he championed as one of his last public acts – Sartre’s social or political interventions were underpinned by profoundly humane moral instincts that remained faithful to his radical analysis of the inalienability of human freedom.

Why, then, did Sartre never complete the book of ethics that he promised in Being and Nothingness, his notebooks for which were published posthumously in 1983? In the immediate post-war period, Sartre was optimistic that free human beings (i.e. everyone) could be integrated into a socialist collectivity in which respect for individual freedom would be the overarching and inspirational value informing all real action in the world. In other words, that personal relations, inevitably grounded in competition and articulated in conflict – much as he had evoked them in Being and Nothingness – might be mediated instead by consensual norms of reciprocal respect and free commitment to a common good. In short, he was a believer in the French revolutionary mantra of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. His optimism was dealt severe blows, however, by the tyranny of the Soviet system, and by what he saw as De Gaulle’s subversion of cherished republican principles. His response to these disillusionments took the form of Critique of Dialectical Reason, in which his aspiration was to “rediscover the real individual reduced to an idea by the Marxian dialectic” and to “trace him through the praxis of his projects in the world” – an ambitious but ultimately doomed enterprise.

Yet Sartre was right to try. It is not his fault that democratic socialism hides a crippling self-contradiction at its very core: people will not freely subscribe to a scale of values and governance that privileges the collective good above the individual advantage. Democratic governments famously cannot get elected on platforms to increase personal taxation in order to improve the common weal – still less on undertakings to cancel third-world debt! On the contrary, democratic political parties feel constrained to vie with each other in a reverse fiscal auction in order to sue for the support of the greedy, self-interested, egocentric voter. None of this is Sartre’s fault, and it is greatly to his credit not only that his analysis of human reality is so transparently honest and, I suggest, accurate; but also that he courageously drew out the consequences of that analysis, placing equal emphasis upon the twin foci of freedom and responsibility; and that he never ceased to wrestle with the profound paradox of the individual / social dichotomy, the oxymoron of the man / history dialectic, in every aspect of his vivid life and eclectic work.

© Dr Benedict O’Donohoe 2005

Benedict O’Donohoe is Secretary of the UK Society for Sartrean Studies, and lectures at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

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