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Jean Paul Sartre
1905 - 1980

The French philosopher and man of letters Jean Paul Sartre ranks as the most versatile writer and as the dominant influence in three decades of French intellectual life.


Jean Paul Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905. His father, a naval officer, died while on a tour of duty in Indochina before Sartre was two years old. His mother belonged to the Alsatian Schweitzer family and was a first cousin to Albert Schweitzer. The young widow returned to her parents' house, where she and her son were treated as "the children." In the first volume of his autobiography, The Words (1964), Sartre describes his unnatural childhood as a spoiled and precocious boy. Lacking any companions his own age, the child found "friends" exclusively in books. Reading and writing thus became his twin passions. "It was in books that I encountered the universe."

Sartre entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1924 and after one failure received first place in the agrégation of philosophy in 1929. The novelist Simone de Beauvoir finished second that year, and the two formed an intimate bond that endured thereafter. After completing compulsory military service, Sartre took a teaching job at a lycée in Le Havre. There he wrote his first novel, Nausea (1938), which some critics have called the century's most influential French novel.

From 1933 to 1935 Sartre was a research student at the Institut Français in Berlin and in Freiburg. He discovered the works of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and began to philosophize in the phenomenological vein. A series of works on the modalities of consciousness poured from Sartre's pen: two works on imagination, one on self-consciousness, and one on emotions. He also produced a first-rate volume of short stories, The Wall (1939).

Sartre returned to Paris to teach in a lycée and to continue his writing, but World War II intervened. Called up by the army, he served briefly on the Eastern front and was taken prisoner. After nine months he secured his release and returned to teaching in Paris, where he became active in the Resistance. During this period he wrote his first major work in philosophy, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology (1943).

After the war Sartre abandoned teaching, determined to support himself by writing. He was also determined that his writing and thinking should be engagé. Intellectuals, he thought, must take a public stand on every great question of their day. He thus became fundamentally a moralist, both in his philosophical and literary works.

Sartre had turned to playwriting and eventually produced a series of theatrical successes which are essentially dramatizations of ideas, although they contain some finely drawn characters and lively plots. The first two, The Flies and No Exit, were produced in occupied Paris. They were followed by Dirty Hands (1948), usually called his best play; The Devil and the Good Lord (1957), a blasphemous, anti-Christian tirade; and The Prisoners of Altona (1960), which combined convincing character portrayal with telling social criticism. Sartre also wrote a number of comedies: The Respectful Prostitute (1946), Kean (1954), and Nekrassov (1956), which the critic Henry Peyre claimed "reveals him as the best comic talent of our times."


Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905-80). Best known as a philosopher, Sartre was also a novelist, dramatist, critic, moralist, and biographer. He contributed to aesthetic theory, psychoanalysis, politics, phenomenology, and Marxism. Within this immense diversity, a unity of purpose can none the less be detected: Sartre's central focus is the relationship between liberty and situation, his aim to reconcile a radical view of human freedom with a recognition of human limitations and facticity and the constraints of the world. The works which reveal the most concerted attempt to synthesize an Existentialist conception of liberty with a Marxist theory of conditioning are the Critique de la raison dialectique (1960) and L'Idiot de la famille (1971-2), but the preoccupation is present in Sartre's writing from the outset.

He was born in Paris, where he spent most of his life apart from a few years in Meudon and La Rochelle as a child, and in Le Havre as a philosophy teacher in a lycée in the early 1930s. He attended the École Normale Supérieure from 1924-9, where he failed the agrégation in 1928, and then took first place the following year; at this time he met his lifelong partner, Simone de Beauvoir, and formed a close friendship with Paul Nizan. In 1933 he went to Berlin to study phenomenology. The late 1930s constitutes the first phase of Sartre's philosophical career, in which a phenomenological and existential orientation is evident, but during which Sartre still defines himself in a fairly academic way in relation to the philosophers.

La Transcendance de l'Ego (1936) argues against Husserl that the self is not an inner core of character, source of our actions, feelings, and beliefs, but rather a synthesis or construct which we falsely imagine to be such a core. Similarly, the historical study L'Imagination (1936) and the later, more creative L'Imaginaire (1940) criticize previous theories of imagination on the grounds that they hold an erroneous view of the image as something immanent to consciousness. In Sartre's view, imagination is rather a relation, one of the modes in which consciousness relates to something outside itself. His Esquisse d'une théorie des émotions (1939) carries out an analogous demystification of the emotions, arguing that they are, on a deep level, chosen reactions to situations which are difficult to deal with rationally, quasi-‘magical’ retreats from problematic areas of experience, rather than themselves being the source of the feelings which accompany them. The phenomenological, existentialist novel La Nausée (1939), which explores its hero's reactions to the realization of the contingency and absurdity of the world, is the chief literary work of this period, together with the remarkable collection of stories and novellas published in 1939 under the title Le Mur.

In 1939, Sartre was conscripted into the army in Nancy, where he kept the diary later published as Carnets de la drôle de guerre (1983), and was subsequently taken prisoner, escaping in 1941. Whilst a soldier and later a captive he worked on L'Âge de raison, the first volume of the unfinished trilogy set in wartime France, Les Chemins de la liberté. He also composed and directed Bariona, a nativity play which, like the later and better-known Les Mouches (1943, a reworking of the Electra story), used a mythical drama to communicate a politics of resistance in a form sufficiently far from contemporary events to evade German censorship. He also spent some time during this period working on his best-known philosophical text L'Être et le néant (1943), which explores the relationship of consciousness to the world and to other consciousnesses. But although Sartre takes over in it the Hegelian model of human relations as conflictual, rather than espousing the more positive Heideggerian notion of Mitsein (being-with-others), he does not explore the moral consequences of his position. He reserves these for a later work on ethics, never to be published in his lifetime.

L'Être et le néant is descriptive rather than committed: Sartre later declared that it was the experience of war that had led him to political commitment. Certainly, after his escape he took some part in the French Resistance [see Occupation And Resistance], and in the post-war period he participated in founding the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire, a radical left-wing alternative to the Communist Party. In 1945 he founded the journal Les Temps modernes at the same time as publishing the play Huis clos (produced 1944, the famous portrayal of three characters fated to remain together for ever after death in a Second Empire salon, unable to escape from each other's gaze, and source of the much misinterpreted slogan: ‘L'Enfer, c'est les autres’). Les Chemins de la liberté (1945-9) and L'Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946, a public lecture in which Sartre attempted to draw more positive, quasi-Kantian ethical consequences from the basic tenets of Existentialism) also appeared in the years immediately following the war. The same fertile period saw the performance of the plays Morts sans sépulture (1946), La Putain respectueuse (1946), and Les Mains sales (1947), and the publication of the screenplays Les Jeux sont faits (1947) and L'Engrenage (1948) and of the essays Réflexions sur la question juive (1947), Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (1947, see Engagement), and Baudelaire (1947), together with the first of the mainly political essays published over a number of years in 10 volumes as Situations (1947-76).

In 1951 Le Diable et le Bon Dieu and Saint Genet, comédien et martyr were published. Both are concerned to attack notions of moral absolutes in favour of a human, situational, relativist ethics; it was on these grounds that in the same year Sartre finally broke with his formerly close associate, Albert Camus. Saint Genet gives a full-scale existential analysis of the novelist and poet Jean Genet, in terms which relate his life as thief and homosexual to his internalization of the hostile judgements passed on him by others in his childhood and adolescence in a foster-home and later a reformatory. Sartre describes Genet as setting a trap for the bourgeois reader through the evocative and seductive lyricism of evil. Ultimately, however, he turns the tables on Genet by interpreting this trap in terms of its paradoxical moral utility to the reader, who is forced to imagine from the inside the life and experience of a social and moral outcast. Genet is reported to have been so traumatized by reading this lengthy psychoanalysis of his works that he abandoned writing for several years. For the rest of the 1950s Sartre's activities were primarily political, and in particular concerned with trying to ease relations between Western Europe and the USSR. This attempt came to an abrupt end in 1956 with the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Sartre then turned his attention to the question of French relations with Algeria, in particular the violation of human rights. This preoccupation was given dramatic form in Les Séquestrés d'Altona (1959), which generalizes the ethical problems of torture by situating the action in post-war Germany, whilst calling the major protagonist Frantz.

In 1960 Sartre also published his second major philosophical work, the Critique de la raison dialectique, a 700-page attempt to reconcile Existentialism and Marxism. The radical philosophy of freedom was finally to earn its historical-materialist credentials through its insertion into an equally radical theory of social and historical conditioning. Sartre also attempted to save Marxism from what he saw as its current sclerosis by rejuvenating it, taking it back to the more complex and subtle of Marx's own ideas, and freeing it from the naïvely causal theories of determinism in which it had become entrenched. It is here that he proposes his theory of totalization as a necessary but impossible goal: the unrealizable dream of the Critique is to transcend inevitable human heterogeneity and found a total historical truth. It is symptomatic that the practice of such a totalizing project was destined to remain (in Volume II, posthumously published in 1985) in the form of unfinished notes.

Apart from the beautifully written, brief, allusive, and tantalizing autobiography of his early years, Les Mots (1964), the 1960s start and end with politics for Sartre. After the Critique came the publication of several volumes of essays in Situations, of primarily political rather than literary criticism. The decade ends with his support of the student movement in May 1968, and with his taking over the editorship of the Maoist journal La Cause du peuple. But Sartre did not see his increased politicization as incompatible with very different kinds of writing, and he defended L'Idiot de la famille (1971-2), a mammoth 3, 000-page biography of Flaubert, as a politically committed text, despite its apparently aesthetic subject-matter, on the grounds that its dialectical methodology and epistemology were themselves revolutionary. In the 1970s Sartre's health deteriorated, his eyesight failed, and he turned to taped discussions as an alternative to writing, using his public prestige to intervene in a wide variety of political issues, particularly the Arab-Israeli question. He died on 15 April 1980 of oedema of the lungs, and was buried in Montparnasse cemetery attended by a huge funeral procession.

Sartre's influence on the social, moral, and political issues of his day was indisputable and was generally positive in its consequences, even if unpopular with the authorities of Church and State. His literary works are varied and innovative. Paradoxically, it is in the domain where his originality and creativity were greatest that his fortunes have been at their lowest ebb: that of philosophy. Structuralism in the 1960s, deconstruction [see Derrida], and Post-Structuralism in the 1970s and 1980s owed an immense debt to him as one of the first thinkers in France to draw the full consequences from the instability of meaning (in art as in philosophy), the human multiplicity of truths, and the important lessons to be learnt from a renewed Marxism. But in their desire to claim originality these currents of thought preferred parricide to acknowledgement of affinities or influences. A decade after Sartre's death the shadow began to lift, and his philosophical works are once more starting to be treated with the seriousness they deserve.


Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905-80) French philosopher, novelist, and dominant French intellectual of his time. Sartre was born in Paris and educated at the École Normale Supérieure. From 1933 he studied in Germany with Husserl and Heidegger. His first novel, La Nausée, was published in 1938 (trs. as Nausea, 1949). L'Imaginaire (1940, trs. as The Psychology of the Imagination, 1948) is a contribution to phenomenal psychology. Briefly captured by the Germans, Sartre spent the war years in Paris, where L’Être et le néant, his major purely philosophical work, was published in 1943 (trs. as Being and Nothingness, 1956). The lecture L'Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946, trs. as Existentialism is a Humanism, 1947) consolidated Sartre's position as France's leading existentialist philosopher. Sartre was centrally interested in politics, becoming in his time a symbol of all that was vigorous, and complex, in French left-wing thought. Although a Marxist, he had strained relations with the communist party. Together with de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty he founded the journal Les Temps modernes in which political and ideological questions were aired, and in 1951 he attempted to found his own political party.

Sartre's philosophy is concerned entirely with the nature of human life, and the structures of consciousness. As a result it gains expression in his novels and plays as well as in more orthodox academic treatises. Its immediate ancestor is the phenomenological tradition of his teachers, and Sartre can most simply be seen as concerned to rebut the charge of idealism as it is laid at the door of phenomenology. The agent is not a spectator of the world, but, like everything in the world, constituted by acts of intentionality and consciousness. The self thus constituted is historically situated, but as an agent whose own mode of locating itself in the world makes for responsibility and emotion. Responsibility is, however, a burden that we frequently cannot bear, and bad faith arises when we deny our own authorship of our actions, seeing them instead as forced responses to situations not of our own making. Sartre thus locates the essential nature of human existence in the capacity for choice, although choice, being equally incompatible with determinism and with the existence of a Kantian moral law, implies a synthesis of consciousness (being for-itself) and the objective (being in-itself) that is forever unstable. The unstable and constantly disintegrating nature of free will generates anguish. Sartre's ‘ontological’ works, including L’Être et le néant, attempt to work out the implications of his views for the nature of consciousness and judgement. For Sartre our capacity to make negative judgements is one of the fundamental puzzles of consciousness. Like Heidegger he took the ‘ontological’ approach of relating this to the nature of non-being, a move that decisively differentiates him from the Anglo-American tradition of modern logic (see being, nothing, quantifier, variable). Sartre's work on other minds illustrates by contrast a strength of the psychological approach, as he explores in detail such experiences as being in the gaze of another person, and connects them with the choices that then result. Sartre's work is notoriously difficult, but emotionally there is no question that he spoke powerfully to the sombre post-war years, when questions of responsibility and its denial held centre-stage in the political life of France.

During this same period Sartre also wrote a three-volume novel, The Roads to Freedom (1945-1949); a treatise on committed literature; lengthy studies of Charles Baudelaire and Jean Genet; and a prodigious number of reviews and criticisms. He also edited Les Temps modernes.

Though never a member of the Communist party, Sartre usually sympathized with the political views of the far left. Whatever the political issue, he was quick to publish his opinions, often combining them with public acts of protest.

In 1960 Sartre returned to philosophy, publishing the first volume of his Critique of Dialectical Reason. It represented essentially a modification of his existentialism by Marxist ideas. The drift of Sartre's earlier work was toward a sense of the futility of life. In Being and Nothingness he declared man to be "a useless passion," condemned to exercise a meaningless freedom. But after World War II his new interest in social and political questions and his rapprochement with Marxist thought led him to more optimistic and activist views.

Sartre has always been a controversial yet respected individual. In 1964, Sartre was awarded but refused to accept the Nobel prize in Literature. Sartre suffered from detrimental health throughout the 1970s. He died of a lung ailment in 1980.










This web page was last updated on: 20 December, 2008