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Jean-Paul Sartre

Philosopher , playwright , writer

Jean-Paul Sartre, French Existentialist.


Sartre, Jean-Paul was born in 1905 in Paris.


École Normale Supérieure. 19248; research student at the Institut Français in Berlin and at Freiburg University, 1933-1935.


Taught philosophy at lycées in Paris and elsewhere.


  • Other Work

    • Main publications:(1936) ‘La Transcendence de l’égo’. in Recherches Philosophiques 6 (English translation, "The transcendence of the ego’, trans. F. Williams and R. Kirkpatrick. New York: Noonday Press, 1957). (1936) L'Imagination, Paris: Alcan (English translation, The Imagination, trans. F. Williams, University of Michigan Press. 1962).(1939) Esquisse d'une théorie des émotions, Paris: Hermann (English translation. Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, trans. Philip Mairet. Methuen, 1962).(1940) L'Imaginaire: psychologie phénoménologique de l'imagination, Paris: Gallimard (English translation, The Psychology of Imagination, New York: Bernard Frechtman. 1948).(1943) L’Être et le néant, Paris: Gallimard (English translation. Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes. London: Methuen, 1957).( 1960) Critique de la raison dialectique, part 1. Paris: Gallimard (English translation. Critique of Dialectical Reason, trans. Hazel Barnes, New York, 1964).(1983) Cahiers pour une morale, Paris: Gallimard (English translation. Notebooks for an Ethics, trans. David Pellaner, Chicago: University of Chciago Press, 1992).(1983) Les Carnets de la drôle de guerre, Paris: Gallimard (English translation. War Diaries, trans.Q. Hoare, London: Verso Books).(1985) Critique de la raison dialelique, vol. 2 (incomplete), Paris: Gallimard.(1989) Vérité et existence. Paris: Gallimard (English translation, Truth and Existence, trans. Ronald Aronson. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 1992).Secondary literature:Blackham. H. J. (1961) Six Existentialist Thinkers.London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Catalano. J. S. (1987) Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, Chicago: University of Chicago Press Cranston. M. (1962) Sartre, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.Danto, A. C. (1975) Sartre. New York: Viking Press. Howells. Christina (ed.) (1992) The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Cambridge: Cambridge University PressManser. A. (1967) Sartre, New York: Oxford University PressMurdoch, I. (1953) Sartre, Romantic Rationalist, Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes Wamock, M. (1972) The Philosophy of Sartre, London: Hutchinson.


Sartre was a leading exponent of atheistic existentialism, a novelist, playwright and critic as well as a philosopher. He was at one time a Communist, then a Marxist. In later life he developed his own style of Marxist sociology.

During the Second World War he was a soldier and for nine months was a prisoner of war in Germany. After his release he worked in the Resistance Movement and when the war ended became editor of Les Temps Moderne. In 1964 he was awarded, but refused, the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He became politically active after the 1968 May Revolt. His last major philosophical work, the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) was written, he maintained, to reconcile existentialism and Marxism. Concomitantly with his philosophical work he was producing novels, plays, criticism and political comment.

His first novel. Nausea (1938), succeeds both as philosophy and novel. His trilogy of novels Roads to Freedom is regarded as a classic of twentiethcentury literature.

Sartre’s early work is influenced by and is also critical of Husserl and Heidegger. In The Transcendence of the Ego (1936) he uses a phenomenological method, derived from Husserl, to describe the structure of consciousness.

At the same time he argues against Husserl’s identification of the self with transcendental consciousness.

In The Imagination, The Psychology of the Imagination and Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1936, 1940, 1939) he works at the borderline between philosophy and psychology. In the last of these he criticizes the theories of James, Janet and Dembo, rejects Freud’s theory of the unconscious and develops his own view of emotion as a means of transforming the world.

Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) is a major document of existentialism. He describes it as ‘an essay on phenomenological ontology’.

Its primary question is: ‘What is it like to be a human being?' Sartre’s answer is that human reality consists of two modes of existence: of being and of nothingness. The human being exists both as an in-itself, an object or thing, and as a for-itself, a consciousness. The existence of an in-itself is ‘opaque to itself.. because it is filled with itself'.

In contrast, the for-itself, or consciousness, has no such fullness of existence, because it is no-thing.

Sartre sometimes describes consciousness of things as a kind of nausea produced by a recognition of the contingency of their existence and the realization that this constitutes Absurdity. The realization generates a desire of the foritself to exist with the fullness of being of an existing thing but without contingency or loss of consciousness. The desired embodying of consciousness is never possible: it can never become a thing and remain consciousness.

The two regions of being are entirely distinct and the ideal of fusing them is ‘an unrealizable totality which haunts the for-itself and consitutes its very being as a nothingness of being’. He says: ‘It is this ideal which can be called God.. man fundamentally is the desire to be God."

According to Sartre, consciousness, because it is nothingness, makes us aware of the possibility of choosing what we will be. This is the condition of human freedom.

To perform an action a person must be able to stand back from participation in the world of existing things and so contemplate what does not exist. The choice of action is also a choice of oneself. In choosing oneself one does not choose to exist: existence is given and one has to exist in order to choose.

From this analysis Sartre derives a famous slogan of existentialism: ‘existence precedes and commands essence’. He maintains that there is no reason for choosing as one does. The choice is unjustified, groundless.

This is the perpetual human reality.

‘Bad faith' is an important concept in

Sartrean existentialism. To act in bad faith is to turn away from the authentic choosing ol oneself and to act in conformity with a stereotype or role. Sartre’s most famous example is that of a waiter:

Let us consider this waiter in the café.

His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes towards the patrons with a step a little too quick.. his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.. he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things.. the waiter in the café plays with his condition in order to realize it.

After the Second World War Sartre began a radical reconstruction of his ideas. He planned the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) in two volumes, the first to be a theoretical and abstract study, the second a treatment of history, but he completed only one volume.

His aim was to establish an a priori foundation for dialectical thought which would justify Marx’s transformation of the Hegelian dialectic by showing that rational human activity, or praxis, is necessarily dialectical. He saw Marxism as the dominant philosophy of the twentieth century and existentialism as one clement in its structure. At the same time he criticizes Marxism’s way of observing society as a whole within a dialectical framework and its neglect of the individual point of view.

He therefore advocates the use of the dialectic from the agent’s standpoint and argues that praxis, examined, shows itself to embody the dialectical procedures as a necessary condition of its activities: we unavoidably use it, he maintains, whenever we attempt to examine ourselves or society at large. This is the basis of the proposed interaction of Marxism and existentialism that will enable Marxism to take on ‘a human dimension'.

Sartre has been criticized for the conception of total human freedom he expounded in Being and Nothingness, and especially for the implications of his account of the human being as a solitary individual who is detachable from historical and social contexts. In the Critique he repudiates much of that early position and admits limits to freedom.

Some of Sartre’s philosophical writings have, in accordance with his wishes, been published posthumously.

Most significantly. Notebooks for an Ethics (1983), a work that goes some way to

fulfilling the promise Sartre made at the end of Being anil Nothingness to devote a subsequent work to ethical questions.


  • Philosophers & Thinkers

    Literary influences: Descartes, Hegel. Husserl, Heidegger and Marx. Personal influence: Simone de Beauvoir.