Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905 – April 15, 1980) was a French philosopher, playwright, novelist, and literary critic. His most famous writings include the novel La nausée (Nausea), (1938), his major philosophical work L'être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) (1943), and the play Huis-clos (No Exit) (1944). Throughout these writings Sartre describes and analyzes our most basic existential experiences, which reveal the fundamental human condition in our relation to the world and others. Although he is often associated with other existential thinkers of the twentieth century (Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel) Sartre, unlike these other philosophers, strongly embraced the term “existentialism” and so today his name, more than these others, is equated with the school of existentialism.
As with other philosophers of existence, Sartre held that ‘existence precedes essence’. For Sartre this meant that all existing things in the material universe are in themselves meaningless. Only through our consciousness of them do things take on value, which means that it is we who create meaning. Sartre links consciousness and our experience of anguish to freedom. It is through accepting responsibility for our freedom, and the anguish that accompanies it, that we can become authentic human beings. Throughout his life Sartre was very politically active, and although he never officially joined the Communist Party, he espoused Marxist ideas. In 1964 Sartre won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he declined the award stating that he did not align himself with institutions.
Sartre was born in Paris to parents Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of the French Navy, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer, cousin of Albert Schweitzer. When he was 15 months old, his father died of a fever. Anne-Marie raised him with help from her father, Charles Schweitzer, who taught Sartre mathematics and introduced him to classical literature at an early age. As a teenager in the 1920s, Sartre 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. Sartre was influenced by many aspects of Western philosophy, particularly the ideas of the great German philosophers Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger.
In 1929 at the École Normale, Sartre met fellow student Simone de Beauvoir, who later became a noted thinker, writer, and feminist. From the start the two were inseparable and throughout their lives they continued a romantic relationship, though one that was self-consciously anti-monogamous. Together Sartre and Beauvoir challenged many cultural and social assumptions, which they considered to be “bourgeois,” both in practice and in thought. The conflict between oppressive conformity to other people or to established institutions and an authentic self-determination based on free choice would become a dominant theme in Sartre's later work.
Sartre graduated from the École Normale in 1929 with a doctorate in philosophy and from 1929 to 1931 he served as a conscript in the French Army. Afterward he taught as a junior lecturer at the Lycée du Havre and began to work on his writing. Throughout the late 1930s he published his first works, such as the philosophical essays: Imagination: A Psychological Critique (1936) and The Transcendence of the Ego (1937), and the literary works: Nausea (1938) and The Wall (1939).
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 in prison; later he was sent to Nancy and finally to Stalag 12D, in Trier, where he wrote his first theater piece: "Barionà, fils du tonnerre." Due to poor health he was released from prison in April of 1941. Given civilian status, he then escaped to Paris where he became involved in the French Resistance and participated in the founding of the resistance group Socialisme et Liberté. It was while engaged in the resistance that he met Albert Camus, a philosopher and writer who held similar existential and political convictions. The two remained friends until Camus’ move away from communism, which created a schism that would eventually divide them in 1951 following the publication of Camus' The Rebel. Also during the war Sartre published his most famous and definitive philosophical work L'être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) (1943). When the war ended he established Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times), a monthly literary and political review, and started writing full-time. It was from out of his war experiences that he would create his great trilogy of novels, Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom) (1945-1949).
While the first period of Sartre's intellectual career is better defined by the philosophical ideas presented in Being and Nothingness, the second period can be viewed more in light of his political engagement. His 1948 work Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands) explores the problem of being both an intellectual and a political activist. Although Sartre never officially joined the French Communist party, he was committed to communist ideas and took a prominent role in the struggle against French colonialism in Algeria. Aware of the abuses of communist Stalinism, however, Sartre spent much of the remainder of his life trying to reconcile his existentialist ideas about self-determination with communist principles, which held that socio-economic forces beyond our immediate, individual control play an instrumental role in shaping our lives. His major defining work of the later period, the Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason) appeared in 1960.
Sartre's emphasis on the humanist values in the early work of Marx led to a famous dispute with the leading Communist intellectual in France during the 1960s, Louis Althusser. Althusser redefined Marx's work by dividing it into an early pre-Marxist period, which espoused essentialist generalizations about “Mankind,” and a more mature, scientific and authentically Marxist period, which emphasized the dialectical materialism over essentialist humanism. Sartre took issue with this interpretation, and it spurred the debate between the two thinkers. Although some say this was the only public debate Sartre ever lost, it remains a disputed issue within various philosophical circles in France.
In 1964, Sartre renounced literature in a witty and sardonic account of the first six 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 literature engagée for Sartre's generation). Literature, Sartre concluded, functioned as a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. Also in 1964 Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; he declined the honor, however, stating that he had always refused official honors and didn't wish to align himself with institutions of any sort.
Although Sartre had become a ‘household name’ (as did “existentialism” which developed into a popular movement throughout the tumultuous 1960s), he remained a simple man with few possessions. Until the end of his life he stayed actively committed to political causes, such as the student revolution strikes in Paris during the summer of 1968 and opposition to the Vietnam War. In terms of the latter, he, along with Bertrand Russell and other intellectuals, organized a tribunal intended to expose U.S. war crimes. Throughout the 1970s Sartre's physical condition deteriorated, partially due to the merciless pace he endured while writing the Critique as well as the last project of his life, a massive analytical biography of Gustave Flaubert (The Family Idiot), both of which remain unfinished. In 1975, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Sartre replied in the following way: "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 died April 15, 1980 in Paris from an edema of the lung. Sartre lies buried in Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. Approximately 50,000 people attended his funeral.
Although many philosophers and writers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have been called “existentialist” the philosophical school of “existentialism” has been mostly associated with the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. There are two main reasons for this. First, unlike other existential thinkers of his generation (Heidegger, Camus, Gabriel Marcel), Sartre did not distance himself from the term ‘existentialism’ but rather embraced it. Or, to put it another way, these others thinkers distanced themselves from this term precisely because Sartre embraced it; so, in philosophical circles existentialism had become almost synonymous with Sartrian ideas. Secondly, the term existential became so widespread in popular culture in the middle part of the 20th century that it came to signify, as Sartre himself said, “almost everything.” Nevertheless, Sartre held to the term and so today existentialism as a specific philosophical school continues to be aligned primarily with Sartre.
Sartre's most well-known introduction to his philosophy is his work Existentialism is a Humanism (1946). In this work, he defends existentialism against its critics, which ultimately results in a somewhat cursory description of his ideas. Nonetheless, the work remains a popular and accessible introduction to Sartre's main ideas. It is within his major and most influential philosophical work Being and Nothingness, however, that these themes are most closely analyzed and so brought to their full philosophical import.
Like most twentieth century existential thinkers Sartre was greatly influenced by the phenomenological movements of Edmund Husserl. This teaching held that all human knowledge can be traced back (reduced) to an original ‘lived experience’. This gave concrete descriptive analyses of our basic experiences priority over purely logical, abstract reasoning. Like Heidegger, Sartre appropriated the phenomenological method and applied it to the subject of ‘existence’ (although Sartre and Heidegger interpreted ‘existence’ in different ways). For Sartre this meant dividing all reality into two basic modes of being: (1) the in-itself (en-soi), which is the state of all material beings as they exist apart from our consciousness of them; and (2) the for-itself (pour-soi), which is all things as they are experienced by or for human consciousness. For Sartre consciousness has no separate existence of its own, but always needs some object to be conscious of. In other words, whenever I think, feel, believe, or will, I must always think, feel, believe, or will some thing. This means that my consciousness is dependent upon that thing or object about which I am thinking, feeling, believing, etc. Consciousness by itself, therefore, is not merely an empty receptacle but literally no-thing, that is, nothingness.
One of Sartre’s primary existential ideas is the notion that existence precedes essence. This means that the being of brute existence comes first and our understanding of it comes after. In classical philosophy the “essence” of things that exist are considered to be their ‘natures’. It is from these objective natures, which really exist “out there,” that we come to know what things are essentially. For Sartre there are no real essences or natures in the strict sense. Whatever meanings we ascribe to things are always subjective; that is, we create them out of our own nothingness or freedom.
Sartre’s existentialism is presupposed by his acceptance of Nietzsche’s pronouncement that ‘God is dead.’ Like Nietzsche, Sartre believed that Enlightenment thinkers had rid themselves of God by turning solely to reason and science, and yet they refused to accept the full implications of this departure. Only if there is a God, can we be said to have an essence or human nature that determines what we as human beings are. Sartre uses an example of a paper-cutter to make his point. Only if someone first had an idea (essence) of a paper-cutter and then actually made it, could we say that the paper-cutter has a nature (essence). Likewise, only if there is a God or Creator who first had an idea of human beings, can we say there is a human essence or nature. But there is no God, so there is no human nature. Thus, the meanings we ascribe to ourselves are our own creations, either individually or socially/culturally. One might note that Sartre nowhere attempts to prove God’s inexistence but simply accepts it as a given.
Given this state of affairs, then, for Sartre we must accept the hard truths of reality. But although Sartre held to the meaninglessness of the universe or material being in itself, he believed strongly in human freedom. This freedom, however, appears as a double-edged sword. Although we are free to create ourselves, which gives us a degree of nobility as well as some flexibility in choosing our actions for ourselves, the full realization and acceptance of our freedom comes at a great price. Sartre describes this great price in terms of anguish, forlornness, and despair.
Once we realize there is no God we must also accept that there is no objective set of ethical values upon which to justify the ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ of our actions. In doing this, we then become aware of a kind of anguish. Anguish for Sartre marks the recognition of our own freedom. While we always fear some thing, some danger or object ‘out there’, anguish is the dread awareness of our own subjective freedom. Forlornness, in turn, is the recognition that we are alone. No one can help us in the solitary journey of making our own choices and so creating our own values. Sartre tells of the inefficacity of seeking advice from someone else. Since we have to choose the person to whom we seek advice, we in a certain sense already know what that person will tell us. Seek advice from a priest and he will tell you to seek God; ask a Communist and she will say join the Party. Sartre, of course, is not talking about trivial decisions but those crossroad choices through which we determine the overall course of our lives and the way we will live; or, in other words, the ultimate meaning which structures and defines our lives.
Finally, this process of self-realization can lead to despair. For our successes and failures, our virtues and our vices, are ultimately our own. We have no one else to praise or blame for our victories and defeats. Many critics have found Sartre’s emphasis on self-determination to be both harsh and naïve. As mentioned above, in later years Sartre tried to reconcile his existential volunteerism with a more Marxist view that stresses social, political, and economic forces; few critics, however, have been convinced by his attempt.
Despite this negative and apparently harsh outlook, Sartre tried to put a positive spin on his philosophy in his analysis of authenticity. It is through our freedom that we accept responsibility for our actions, which in turn determines who we are. If we avoid this responsibility we fall into what Sartre calls mauvaise foi or “bad faith.” In bad faith we deceive ourselves, either by denying our freedom in claiming that we “have no choice” or else by giving into daydreams and so imagining ourselves to be what we are not. Instead we are to accept responsibility for what we are (past) as well as our freedom to choose what to become (future). In this way, then, we become authentic human beings. Moreover, when we choose ourselves, we choose all humanity. This means that to commit ourselves to a certain cause or worldview (for example, Christianity or Communism) we do not say “this is right merely for me” but rather this is right for everyone (all humanity). One could not authentically commit to something unless this notion of ‘choosing all humanity’ was implicit in the choice. Nothing justifies or grounds the ‘truth’ or value of this choice, however, except our own whole-hearted commitment to it.
Like other existential-phenomenologists Sartre held that our ideas are the products of our lived experiences or real-life situations. For this reason, novels and plays, which describe our fundamental experiences of the world and others, have as much value as philosophical or theoretical essays. In his most famous novel Nausea, Sartre describes and analyzes in narrative form many of these basic existential encounters. The novel centers on a dejected researcher (Roquentin) who is living in a town similar to Le Havre. Throughout the story Roquentin becomes starkly conscious of the fact that inanimate objects and situations remain absolutely indifferent to his existence. Rather than reveal themselves as being intrinsically meaningful, they show themselves to be resistant to whatever significance human consciousness might perceive in them. This indifference of "things in themselves" (or the "being-in-itself" of Being and Nothingness) reveals to Roquentin his own fundamental freedom or ‘nothingness.” Everywhere he looks, in fact, he finds situations imbued with meanings (‘nihilations’), which bear the stamp of his own existence. Hence the “nausea” that arises from this experience of his own nothingness. All that he encounters in everyday life is suffused with this all-pervasive and horrible taste, namely, his own freedom. No matter how much he longs for something other (nostalgia), he cannot escape from the harrowing evidence of his nihilating engagement with the world.
Along with Nausea, Sartre offered other major contributions to the world of literature. The stories in The Wall, for example, contributed to the absurdist literature of the post-war period, by emphasizing the arbitrary aspects of situations in which people find themselves and the absurdity of their attempts to deal rationally with them. Also, there was the Roads to Freedom trilogy, which charts the progression of how World War II affected and developed many of Sartre's main ideas. In these novels Sartre presents a less theoretical and more practical approach to existentialism, which illustrate his notion of literature as ‘engaged’. Sartre’s plays, as well, are richly symbolic in conveying his philosophical ideas. The best-known, Huis-clos (No Exit), contains the famous line: "L'enfer, c'est les autres," usually translated as "Hell is other people." Although this line neatly captures Sartre’s skepticism of others in terms of their attempts at domination (which is also conveyed in his philosophical analysis of shame in Being and Nothingness); it nevertheless is pronounced ironically in the play, and so one should be careful about attributing that statement to Sartre’s overall position of social interaction.
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