Sartre’s Expresses Existential Philosophy

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, first published while France was occupied by the Germans, became a generation’s key to living authentically. It responded to Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time by articulating Sartre’s version of existentialism, a distinctively twentieth century philosophy.

Summary of Event

Before World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre had devoted much of his time as a writer to literature, composing novels and short stories while dabbling in philosophy. The war, which he thought would be a short one, came as a rude awakening. He saw France quickly fall to the Nazis, was himself interned in a German prison camp, and, when released, found himself living in a Paris under foreign occupation. France;German occupation Beneath the pall of his country’s despair, he wrote L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), a work of philosophy that emphasized how much freedom the human consciousness intrinsically possessed. The book not only ontologically grounded this freedom but also suggested that liberty weighed heavily on people. Sartre illustrated with psychological thumbnail sketches his thesis that awareness of freedom’s implications was shamefacedly ignored by most. Being and Nothingness (Sartre)
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Sartre, Jean-Paul
Aron, Raymond
Beauvoir, Simone de

On June 25, 1943, when the book appeared, and so long as the French were still groaning under their Nazi overlords, Sartre’s message found little response. As soon as the country was liberated and the war ended, however, Sartre’s text was picked up by an immense audience that had been yearning for freedom and now was looking for a break with the immediate, bitter past. With the book’s popularity, Sartre, who since 1931 had been supporting himself as an obscure schoolmaster, had to face what few serious philosophers have been bothered with: fame. The French thinker, having already combined the careers of philosopher and fiction writer, took up yet another occupation as a public figure.

From then on, Sartre’s literary career was bound up with his interventions in political and social affairs. Ironically, as he gained more prominence and had more effect on the French nation, his philosophy became more modest in its pretensions for the individual, repeatedly demonstrating how hedged in a single person is by the constraints of environment. Meanwhile, in his fiction, Sartre dwelled on characters who threw away their freedom rather than accept the anxiety and responsibility its acceptance demanded.

Many of the French who had survived World War II had come to believe that all ideals were hollow—brutality on both sides had made a mockery of them—while their prewar leaders were compromised as bunglers or traitors. The individualistic, down-to-earth message of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which spoke of abandoning all grand theories and evaluating each moral law as to whether it met the tests of authenticity and freedom, appealed tremendously to those who had come through the recent traumas. It was to the youth, primarily in France but also in other European countries and in the United States, that Sartre’s book spoke. It provided them with a new code based on two postulates: The engaged person chose beliefs, recognizing this as a free decision; that person then acted in a committed way to sustain those beliefs. Thus, the position one ultimately took was not as important as one’s way of arriving at it and, having arrived at it, of living in a way that proved one’s allegiance to it. With the foundations of all ethical systems slipping, Sartre’s philosophy grounded morality in the self, which many youths believed was the only thing that was still reliable.

Ethical elements of Being and Nothingness made up the message that most of Sartre’s young fans took away from the text, but this message did not contain all the essential points of the book. In fact, much of the work consisted of densely argued passages on such philosophical topics as the features of the cogito, which few, except for the philosophically trained, probably waded through. What attracted Sartre’s large nonacademic following was his basic stance and his way of illustrating it. In the book, he made use of pithy examples to drive home his points. For example—to take a famous case—to show how another person’s glance can transfix the viewed in shame and bafflement, Sartre describes a voyeur peering through a hotel keyhole who then looks up and finds that he is being watched. This makes Sartre’s philosophical point beautifully palatable.

Furthermore, as a playwright as well as a philosopher, Sartre could function as his own popularizer, presenting his ideas in simplified form through dramatic situations. This helped make his work accessible. Readers could turn to Being and Nothingness after having been prepared for his concepts by watching such relatively lighter fare as No Exit. Thus, the philosophical text’s popularity was built partially on Sartre’s own skill as a propagandist.

The major fictional form Sartre worked with in the postwar years was drama. The most acclaimed of his plays, Huis-clos
No Exit (Sartre) (1944; In Camera, 1946; better known as No Exit, 1958), followed hard on the heels of Being and Nothingness. This tightly constructed drama opens with three strangers finding themselves mysteriously trapped in a locked room and quickly getting on each other’s nerves. Gradually, they realize they are in Hell, where the only—but sufficient—torture is that the doomed are forced to live with people with whom they are maddeningly incompatible.

In No Exit, Sartre wittily created a revised morality in which it was not sin that damned one but rather the refusal of freedom in characters who would not adapt to others. Other works, while continuing to catalog evasions of freedom, fit more with his political concerns. He was afraid that France would be swallowed up by an alliance with the United States and pointed out America’s faults. In his play La Putain respectueuse
Respectful Prostitute, The (Sartre) (1946; The Respectful Prostitute, 1949), for example, he castigated the United States for its racial intolerance and hypocrisy.

Forming a bridge between his philosophy and fiction was Sartre’s literary criticism. In Qu’est-ce que la littérature?
What Is Literature? (Sartre) (1947; What Is Literature?, 1949), he produced a theory of writing that turned to the more hopeful elements of his first philosophy. Sartre said that human freedom, which is everywhere denied in practice, is at least preserved in good fiction. The honest writer solicits a reader’s freedom, asking for an open mind and heart. In return, the author promises to write from his or her freest levels. This was easier said than done, as Sartre was to reveal in such major studies of authors as Saint-Genet: Comédien et martyr
Saint Genet (Sartre) (1952; Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, 1963). In these works, he both explored how writers asserted freedom by making their responses stick in difficult situations and underlined the many obstacles to free expression contained in normal situations.

An important area in French politics after the war was the relationship between the country’s large Communist Party—the largest institution on the political left—and liberal and radical intellectuals who were independent of the party. As one of these independents, Sartre had a close but often tempestuous relation with the Communists, coming to share many of their announced principles, such as their belief that workers should control industry, but constantly upbraiding them for failing to live up to their own ideals. It was his dialogue with the Communists that caused him to scale down his claims for an individual’s autonomy as he fit his original concept to a partial acceptance of Marxist determinism.

In his works examining writers, Sartre had attempted to anchor their freedom in choices made in circumstances hampered by the exigencies of class, sex, race, and other factors. In his second major philosophical tome, Critique de la raison dialectique, I: Théorie des ensembles pratiques
Critique of Dialectical Reason I (Sartre)[Critique of Dialectical Reason 1] (1960; Critique of Dialectical Reason I: Theory of Practical Ensembles, 1976), Sartre abandoned his focus on the individual altogether and tried to locate freedom in group behavior. The direct political precipitant of the text was the war France had become involved in with its colony Algeria. Incensed by his country’s leader’s misguided attempts to hold on to the remnants of a lost empire and noticing the effectiveness of mass protest, Sartre portrayed the power that rested with the people when they organized into creative, fighting mobs. Drawing his examples from the French Revolution, he revised his concept of freedom, making its bastion leaderless, democratically organized crowds and placing its antithesis in stultified groups such as army units.

The celebrity that the success of Being and Nothingness brought to Sartre put the thinker, who was so conscious of moral responsibility, in a position from which he could affect politics. His later writings struggled to be both responses to France’s social situations and remoldings and refinements of his opinion of the amount and value of an individual’s freedom.


Sartre was a leftist, but his book was not appreciated by the largest established leftist group in France, the Communist Party Communist Party, French . Attraction to Sartre’s philosophy, the Communists believed, turned young people away from the Party and more suitable reading matter such as the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Consequently, Communist intellectuals were enlisted to wage war against Being and Nothingness.

The most famous of the Marxist Marxism writers involved in this war was György Lukács Lukács, György , but he merely lambasted Sartre’s bourgeois decadence, bringing more rancor than rigor to the debate. More thoughtful was Henri Lefebvre’s Lefebvre, Henri
Existentialisme (Lefebvre) (1946), which allowed that Sartre’s distaste for conventions was well founded but said that he went overboard in granting so much power in life to individual subjectivity. What is especially interesting about this critique is that later Lefebvre would recant his position, attacking dogmatic Marxism and aligning his own work with Sartre’s. In such projects as Critique de la vie quotidienne
Everyday Life in the Modern World (Lefebvre) (1947-1962; partially translated as Everyday Life in the Modern World, 1971), Lefebvre would abandon the major Marxist categories of labor and production and, following Sartre’s emphasis on the everyday, analyze oppression as it is manifested in daily life.

Although Sartre would have liked a French left that was independent, he accepted that the Communists were the dominant group on the left for the foreseeable future. He defended his book against the Party’s charges and opened a dialogue with the group that would reach over the years and lead him to write some of his most extraordinary works.

Still, rather than from the Communists, the most trenchant criticism of Being and Nothingness came from his friend Maurice Merleau-Ponty Merleau-Ponty, Maurice . Merleau-Ponty, a fellow existentialist philosopher, took Sartre to task in his major work Phénoménologie de la perception
Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty) (1945; Phenomenology of Perception, 1962). Acknowledging the brilliance of much of Sartre’s analysis, Merleau-Ponty centered his objection on what he considered to be Sartre’s sterile dualizing, his rigid oppositions between self and objects and between self and others.

Merleau-Ponty believed that the self was not the isolated consciousness Sartre supposed but instead a composite built up of both its own impulses and impulses gathered from the world. To properly integrate understanding of one’s self with that of the world, Merleau-Ponty argued, one must begin by seeing that these categories are never separate in reality. It should be emphasized, nevertheless, that as different as his view was from that of Sartre, it had been formed by a deep meditation on Being and Nothingness.

The next generation of French philosophers, the structuralists Structuralism , who emerged in the 1960’s, repudiated Sartre. They believed that overarching structures, such as that of language, were more important determinants of human life than was consciousness. They came to sharpen their positions by attacking Sartre, and in this way they acknowledged the continued influence of his thought. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness had formed the thought of one era and became the fountainhead of the powerful influence that the next era’s thinkers fought to resist. Being and Nothingness (Sartre)

Further Reading

  • Boulé, Jean-Pierre. Sartre, Self-Formation, and Masculinities. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005. A study of Sartrean existentialism as a model of the formation of individualistic identity in general and of masculine identity in particular. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Flynn, Thomas R. Sartre and Marxist Existentialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. The book wrestles with the same problem Sartre did, that of integrating his early sense of individual responsibility with his later feeling for the weight of circumstances. Offers a careful and readable treatment of the main philosophical categories of Being and Nothingness. Includes notes, bibliography, and an index.
  • Hayman, Ronald. Sartre: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. A fair but far from adulatory biography of Sartre that gets at what distinguished Sartre from other thinkers of his period. Contains notes, photos, a bibliography, an index, and a chronology that lists the events of Sartre’s life alongside a time line of the major historical events of the era.
  • Hoven, Adrian van den, and Andrew Leak, eds. Sartre Today: A Centenary Celebration. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005. Compilation of tributes, critiques, and reassessments of Sartre’s work, published on the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Jeanson, Francis. Sartre and the Problem of Morality. Translated by Robert V. Stone. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Sartre recommended this book, originally published in 1947, as a treatment of his early philosophy. The book deals acutely with ethical problems studied by Sartre, at times waxing poetic as the author tries to convey the pleasures of the subject. Contains a foreword by Sartre, a later reconsideration of the material by the author, and an index.
  • Poster, Mark. Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. A well-informed account of the political implications of Being and Nothingness and how they were interpreted by the right and the left in France. Poster shows how much of Sartre’s work was created in a debate with other political thinkers. Index and bibliography.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. In places the book is so densely argued as to become opaque. In such places, it is easy to lose the thread of the argument. Other passages, however, are amazing for their linkage of profound philosophical inquiry with lucid examples drawn from psychology.
  • Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1981. A good sourcebook that contains an interview with Sartre as well as twenty-eight essays by leading Sartre experts. Of particular interest are the discussion of Sartre’s relation to Merleau-Ponty and the analysis of how Sartre embodied some of the ideas of Being and Nothingness in drama. Bibliography and index.

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